The evolution of WHS: What are your mental health obligations?
Long gone are the days when workplace health and safety simply involved mitigating physical dangers. Over the last few decades, health and safety responsibilities have evolved to encompass a far more holistic skillset – including looking after the mental health and wellbeing of your workforce.
But what’s mental health got to do with Workplace Health and Safety (WHS)? Let’s take a step back and consider why managers accountable for health and safety were introduced in the first place.
Back in the 19th century, workplaces had become increasingly dangerous. Machinery was in its early stages of evolution and workers were increasingly put in harm’s way, often without support or compensation from management. After countless accidents onsite, often including fatalities, the role of someone responsible for safety and WHS compliance was created to address these concerns.
The idea of compensation for work-related injuries and proactive safety regulations had to be implemented to evolve with the surrounding technology. And as machinery and solutions changed, WHS obligations changed too. Workplace inspections were implemented in the early 19th century and the concept of health and safety crept into the law books in England in the 1830s. Later that century, unions and societies for specific industries began to be established all around the world in order to self-regulate conditions and concerns for the health and safety of workers.
Australia has managed to reduce injury-related claims by around 42% in the last decade – almost double their intended target – but incidents are still often underreported and more can still be done to avoid. Australia is continually improving the WHS landscape in an attempt to lower damaging incidences. This includes looking beyond the physical, and on to how our mental wellbeing plays a part in workplace health and safety.
The introduction of mental health regulations
The last few years have seen a profound change in the way we view workplace health and safety. Today, workplace concerns are no longer limited to physical dangers like complex or heavy machinery. Now, mental health employee rights are also included in the set of WHS obligations.
If employees are suffering from high stress levels, bullying, fatigue or general poor mental wellbeing, the risks of absenteeism, bad performance and injury increase exponentially. In fact, around 450 million reported cases of mental health issues exist across the globe, making it one of the world’s most prevalent and costly health concerns. And the risks of ignoring mental health issues are not something WHS can ignore.
$10.9billion is lost to unaddressed issues each year in Australia. So, the job description of a WHS manager has broadened – including addressing workplace wellbeing, overseeing mental health employee rights for all staff (even management) and implementing strategies to improve outcomes for everyone – before any incidents occur.
In fact, Victoria’s 2004 OHS Act officially broadened their definition of ‘health’ to include psychological health, making improving mental wellbeing in the workplace a core responsibility for businesses across the country.
WHS responsibilities of employers today
Ann Sherry, Chair of Safe Work Australia, reinforces that “one of the things that Australian business is doing better is, rather than WHS being an overlay or additional something you do after you have done everything else, it’s more embedded in the way people are thinking about running a good business.”
Proactively addressing all health and safety risks – from the physical to the psychological – is key. Employers and employees alike need to be supported in learning to recognise areas for improvement, act on risks and ask for help where needed in order for preventative strategies to be put in place.
Mental health organisation Headspace advises that employers are obliged, in accordance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), to provide a safe and healthy workplace that boasts privacy and is free from discrimination. This discrimination may even include “an employer’s failure to make reasonable adjustments for a worker with a mental health condition… even when on the face of it no ‘direct’ discrimination has occurred.”
As stated in the WHS legislation, employers also have a duty to “provide as much information, instruction, training and supervision to employees so that they can work safely.” But this isn’t just “job” training. It is mental health training that equips businesses with the skills to understand what makes a workplace “mentally healthy” and how to address issues should they arise.
Here at Premium Health, we offer tailored mental health training for Australian businesses, including mental health awareness and effective conversations and Mental Health First Aid. Register your interest in mental health training for your workplace today, or find out more about why you should be investing in mental health training for your business.