ACT Council of Social Service Inc.

Justice | Equity | Social Inclusion | Reconciliation

Health & wellbeing in the workplace

Publication date: 
July 2016

By Susan Helyar, Director, ACTCOSS. First published in the ACTCOSS Weekly Community Sector eNotices, 1 July 2016.

This week I wanted to share some material that will be relevant and hopefully useful to employers in the community sector.

This topic was on my radar as a result of work I do as a member of the ACT Work Safety Council (an advisory body to the ACT Minister for Workplace Safety and Industrial Relations) and through ACTCOSS Capability team work with our members and other organisations providing training and consultancy on workforce and organisation development.

Safe Work Australia recently published research conducted by the University of Sydney titled Design of Work and the Health of the Australian Workforce (Safe Work Australia 2016). This research examined associations between the Pressure, Disorganisation and Regulatory Failure (PDR) framework and four work health and safety variables (mental health, physical health, injury, and work health and safety knowledge).

The PDR framework includes

  • Pressure: due to financial strain and payment systems
  • Disorganisation: disruption caused by inadequate training, ineffective communication and/or poor implementation of policies and procedures in the workplace
  • Regulatory systems: knowledge (or lack) of their legal rights and entitlements and perceived barriers to reporting health and safety issues.

The report also examined the effects of job control, subjective or perceived job insecurity, objective job insecurity (permanent vs. non ongoing employment) and working hours on health outcomes and work health and safety knowledge.

These issues are all live in ACT community organisations. There is growing pressure associated with changing funding arrangements, uncertainties in the operating environment, workforce gaps and shortages, challenges in maintaining and strengthening organisational practices with a more mobile workforce with less face to face time with colleagues and managers and complexities associated with working in multiple jobs.

People working in community services talk about feeling a lack of control over the pace, intensity and scope of work required of them. The biggest growth in employment in our sector is in non-ongoing employment, often with less hours than a person is seeking. And work health and safety advocates report growing risks of injuries and illnesses associated with distress at work and lack of capacity to address health and well-being concerns.

At the same time I was reading about this research, I reviewed a publication from the Harvard Business School (link is external) on resilience in the workplace. This article identified the following risks in workplaces:

  • Multiple competing demands
  • Complicated schedules
  • Unmanageable flows of information
  • Increased pace and intensity of work
  • Challenges in dealing with rapid technological changes alongside significant change in business, service and funding models.

We also know that in workplaces that provide services there are also risks associated with

  • Verbal abuse and intimidation;
  • Threatening phone calls or letters;
  • Stalking;
  • Threats of harm to the worker or his/her family and friends;
  • Destruction of property or possessions; and/or
  • Physical assault of some kind.

Putting this together with research by the World Health Organisation (link is external) on the impact of stress and lack of sense of control at work contributing to growth in the burden of disease associated with mental ill health, a clear picture emerges of a need to think hard and well about how to reduce the risk of work in community services compromising mental health and wellbeing.

Research suggests there are some things to look for in the workforce as early warning signs:

  • People being distracted, unable to focus on tasks, and/or task switching in ways that reduces work quality and satisfaction
  • Fatigue, feeling worn out and/or run down
  • Lack of emotional and physical resilience
  • Reduced capacity for problem solving
  • Headaches
  • Backaches and other muscular aches and pains, Cramps in the neck, shoulders or arms
  • Poor memory, difficulty in concentrating
  • Loss of energy and motivation
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Sleep difficulties

More urgent warning signs are:

  • Errors in judgement
  • Being irritable or angry, weepy or tearful
  • Apathy and hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety, helplessness and/or fear
  • Distress

Risks of occupational violence (both between workers and between workers and consumers) also have warning signs:

  • Early potential: rapid breathing, clenched fists and teeth, flared nostrils, flushing, panic, loud talking or chanting, restless and repetitive movements, clinging to staff, pacing, violent gestures—for example pointing, swearing excessively and/or using sexually explicit language, veiled threats, verbal abuse, unprovoked outbursts of anger or emotion, or sexually harassing.
  • Escalated potential: argues frequently and intensely, blatantly disregards “normal” behaviour, hyper-vigilant, obsessional thinking and behaviour, throws/sabotages/steals equipment or property, makes overt verbal threats to hurt workers, rage reactions to frustration, sends violent or sexual comments via email, voicemail or letter, and blames others for all difficulties.
  • Urgent signs: fascination with weapons, substance abuse, severe stress, violent history, marked changes in psychological functioning, exotic claims (losing touch with reality), social isolation or poor peer relationships, poor personal hygiene, and drastic changes in personality.
  • Realised potential: destruction of property, involved in physical confrontations or commits assaults, displays and/or uses weapons, commits sexual assaults, arson or suicide.

We know that there are ways of protecting people from workplace injuries and illness related to mental ill health. Key factors influencing the capacity of employers to reduce risk are:

  • the feasibility of moderating the risks outlined above
  • willingness of people to raise concerns
  • appropriate support during complaints and investigative processes
  • capacity of organisations to promptly and effectively address risks and hazards
  • positive co-worker relationships
  • constructive supervisory relationships
  • effective performance management and career development
  • addressing bullying the workplace (between workers and between workers and consumers)

Many employers struggle with encouraging and enabling good workplace culture and practices, and there is always room for improvement. Tools for workers and for employers are available from a number of sources:

The key findings from the Design of Work and the Health of the Australian Workforce research referred to above assist with identifying priorities for action.  High PDR scores were associated with:

  • poorer mental health, especially among younger workers and those with an injury,
  • a lack of health and safety knowledge, with perceived barriers to reporting safety issues the key contributing factor.
  • Working in non-permanent jobs (e.g. fixed term, casual and labour hire) was associated with a lack of health and safety knowledge for younger workers and for injured workers.
  • Injured workers in non-permanent jobs tended to have lower health and safety knowledge than injured workers in permanent positions.
  • Health and safety knowledge was similar between injured and non-injured workers.

ACTCOSS is working with others in the ACT Work Safety Council on improving understanding in and resources for small and medium enterprises so those employers can better reduce risks and respond to concerns.  ACTCOSS incorporates content about risks to mental health and wellbeing in workplaces in our manager training and other learning and development programs.

My view would be that alongside improved training and resources, employers, with the support of their governing bodies, should review their internal policies, processes and systems to identify what can be done to:

  • reduce disorganisation (as defined above) in the operating environment
  • improve workers mental health and their safety knowledge
  • reduce pressures in the operating environment that are contributing to increased risk to worker health and safety
  • advocate for the policy and regulatory reforms that are needed to further reduce these pressures
  • reduce health and safety reporting constraints, which is especially critical for specific groups of workers such as those with an injury, those in non-permanent jobs and younger workers. Reporting constraints have been reduced other settings by improving worker-manager relationships, more open communication and by ensuring that workers have adequate knowledge of work hazards, safety procedures and dispute resolution processes.
  • enhance health and safety training, especially among workers in non-permanent jobs and younger workers. Campaigns to increase awareness of PCBU duties towards casual and labour hire workers have been recommended by work health and safety advocates.

ACTCOSS is working on improving our capability and systems ourselves so will value a shared learning journey with our colleagues as we all work to improve our ability to offer workplaces that support mental health and wellbeing.


Anderson P, McDaid D, Basu S, Stuckler D 2011, Impact of economic crises on Mental Health, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen, < (link is external)>.

Bambra C 2010, 'Yesterday Once More? Unemployment and Health in the 21st Century', Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, vol. 64, no. 3, pp. 213-5, < (link is external)>.

Fernandez R 2016, 5 Ways to Boost Your Resilience at Work, Harvard Business Review, < (link is external)>.

Safe Work Australia 2016, Agenda Paper on research on Design of Work and the Health of the Australian Workforce, Safe Work Australia SIG-WHS meeting, June 2016.