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Psychological Health and Safety Concepts and Terminology

Mental Health Psych Health and Safety

Psychological Health and Safety Concepts and Terminology


The regulatory landscape for workplace mental health is changing. Are you across the core ideas and language?

7 min read

In a previous article we outlined the amendments to the model work health and safety (WHS) regulations published by Safe Work Australia in April 2022. These changes were followed by the release of a model Code of Practice providing guidance on managing psychosocial hazards at work in July. Fundamentally, these changes are about employers managing risks to their workers’ mental health using the same kind of approach that has long been applied to physical safety.

To comprehensively address risks to psychological health and safety requires leadership commitment to organization-wide approaches such as good work design and safe systems of work. This poses particular challenges due to the need to bring together leaders with different roles, experience, skill sets, knowledge and mindsets regarding WHS, such as board members, company directors, C-suite leaders, senior executives, HR leaders, work health and safety (WHS) managers, health and safety representatives (HSRs), supervisors and learning and development (L&D) professionals.

Whichever of these roles you play in your business, it’s vital to understand psychological health and safety concepts. This post unpacks the core terminology to provide decision-making teams with a shared understanding and language.

Mental health, psychological health and health

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as:

  • more than the absence of mental health conditions. Rather, mental health is a state of mental wellbeing that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, to realize their abilities, to learn well and work well, and to contribute to their communities (World Health Organization, 2022a),
  • an integral part of our general health and wellbeing and a basic human right (World Health Organization, 2022b), and
  • as important as our physical health (World Health Organization, 2022b).

Australian researchers and policy makers tend to use the term mental health (Martin et al., 2017). By contrast, the term psychological health is used in Australian WHS laws (Safe Work Australia, 2019). The two terms are interchangeable but psychological health is the preferred term when referring to legal obligations related to WHS.

In Australian WHS laws, health includes both physical and psychological health.

Work health and safety, occupational health and safety, and psychological health and safety

Under Australian WHS laws employers have a legal obligation to protect workers’ health (prevent illness and disease) and protect their safety (prevent workplace injuries). Work health and safety means the management of risks to the health and safety of people in the workplace. Occupational health and safety (OH&S or OHS) is an older term for work health and safety.

As discussed above, these obligations apply to both physical health and psychological health. Psychological health and safety is used instead of ‘mental health at work’ to emphasize mandatory WHS obligations.

Hazards, risks and risk management

Hazards and risks are health and safety terms that are often used interchangeably. However, this is incorrect! A hazard is a situation or thing that has the potential to harm a person whereas a risk is the possibility that harm (death, injury or illness) might occur upon exposure to a hazard (Safe Work Australia, n.d.-a). So, hazards are sources of risk. Risks take into consideration the severity of potential consequences as well as their likelihood.

Risk management is a systematic approach to managing risks that involves four steps: (1) identifying hazards, (2) assessing risks, (3) controlling the risks, and (4) reviewing control measures (Safe Work Australia, 2022a).

Psychosocial hazards, psychosocial risks, psychological harm and psychological injuries

When it comes to psychosocial hazards, it’s useful to know there is not one universally agreed upon definition. Even Safe Work Australia offers several. A short definition of psychosocial hazards and factors are anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of psychological or physical harm (Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, n.d.).

A more comprehensive definition is hazards that:

  • arise from or in relation to:
    • the design or management of work
    • the working environment
    • plant at a workplace (machinery, equipment, tools, etc.)
    • workplace interactions or behaviors; and
  • may cause psychological or physical harm (Safe Work Australia, 2022a).

A psychosocial risk is a risk to the health or safety of a worker or other person arising from exposure to a psychosocial hazard (Safe Work Australia, 2022b). In other words, a psychosocial risk is the likelihood that psychological harm or a psychological injury will occur from exposure to a psychosocial hazard.

It’s important to understand that psychosocial hazards are NOT the same as psychosocial risks. This misunderstanding can occur for two reasons: (1) incorrectly believing the terms are interchangeable (i.e., that they represent the same concept), or (2) by assuming that exposure to psychosocial hazards always leads to psychosocial risks. Individual susceptibility to stressors plays a role in mental health outcomes, as does the frequency, duration and severity of exposure to psychosocial hazards.

Psychological harm means harm to mental health (Safe Work Australia, n.d.-b). Being absent from work (absenteeism) or turning up to work but being unproductive due to psychological distress (presenteeism) are examples of psychological harm. Psychological injuries from psychosocial hazards include conditions such as anxiety, depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and sleep disorders (Safe Work Australia, 2022a; Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, 2022).

Key takeaways

  • All leaders within organizations, whether executives, HR professionals or WHS specialists, have an obligation to understand psychological health and safety concepts and terminology.
  • Psychological health is the term for mental health in work health and safety laws and guidance material.
  • Psychological health and safety refers to using a risk management approach to manage risks to mental health in the workplace and is a legal responsibility of Australian businesses.
  • Psychosocial hazards are anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of psychological harm or injury (such as distress, anxiety, depression or PTSD) or physical harm (such as musculoskeletal disorders).