Legal duty of care
NSW Work Health and Safety Act 2011 imposes various duties and responsibilities on managers and staff in relation to ensuring the health and safety of workers (and visitors to the workplace). That same legislation defines health to mean both physical and psychological health.
Therefore, the legal duty imposed on employers to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety applies as much to the psychological health and safety of workers as it does their physical health and safety.
Psychological health and safety
A frequent observation in much of what is written about mental health and wellbeing at work is the reluctance of organisations, managers and staff to deal with the more psychological side of health and safety at work.
A 2016 Australian survey of organisations, which included a wide range of organisations and sole traders, revealed some supporting data highlighting this reluctance. It showed that over 60% of the 226 respondent organisations reported that they had no specific policy or procedure in place to identify mental health risks despite reporting a significant increase in mental health cases at work (Managing Mental Health in the Workplace: Survey Report 2016).
The Australian Public Service Commission and ComCare in their guide called As One - Working Together: Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work (PDF 14,119KB) suggest various factors at play which contribute to the avoidance of dealing with mental health at work. This includes myths such as:
- People with mental health conditions cannot work
- Once people develop mental ill-health, they will never recover
- People with mental health conditions are dangerous
- There is nothing I can do help someone with a mental health condition
- Mental health is a form of weakness
- Mental health matters are someone’s private business and I should not raise them
- I lack the specialist skills needed to deal with mental health issues.
Many of the key government and not-for-profit organisations which advocate on the issue of mental health acknowledge that raising awareness in the workplace is a critically important strategy because of the negative and potentially destructive myths and misunderstandings regarding mental ill-health.
These same organisations also acknowledge that a specific emphasis on mental health and wellbeing at work is needed to address the current imbalance between the physical versus psychological focus on health and safety. This needed emphasis is embodied in the national and state WHS policy framework which applies to local councils.