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Workplace Mental Health: The Changing Regulatory Landscape

Mental Health Psych Health and Safety

Workplace Mental Health: The Changing Regulatory Landscape


Workplace mental health is changing. Is your organization in need of a paradigm shift?

6 min read

Is your organization adapting to the changing regulatory landscape of workplace mental health in Australia? Read on (and check out our subsequent blog posts) to learn more.

Work Health and Safety

Safe Work Australia is the national body responsible for the development of model work health and safety (WHS) laws. These model laws are comprised of the model WHS Act, model WHS Regulations and model Codes of Practice (Safe Work Australia, n.d.). WHS model laws are designed to provide a harmonized approach across states and territories. However, Australia’s system of government means these laws do not apply unless they are implemented by a jurisdiction. To date, all states and territories except Victoria have implemented the model laws or a version of them.

Safe Work Australia published significant amendments to the model WHS regulations in April this year to clarify employers’ obligations regarding psychological health and safety (workplace mental health). These changes were followed by the release of a model Code of Practice providing guidance on managing psychosocial hazards at work in July.

What are psychosocial hazards?

Safe Work Australia (2022a) defines psychosocial hazards as 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 harm such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sleep disorders; and
  • may cause physical harm such as musculoskeletal injury, chronic disease, and physical injury following fatigue-related workplace incidents.

In other words, psychosocial hazards are aspects of work that can cause psychological and/or physical harm.

What has changed?

The model WHS Act, developed more than a decade ago, placed the onus on employers to address the risks to workers’ physical AND psychological (mental) health. Physical health and safety were required to be managed using a risk assessment approach. However, it was much less clear what was expected in relation to psychological health.

The recent amendments (section 55A-D of the WHS Regulation) now outline specific duties for businesses in relation to psychosocial hazards. The key change is that risks to psychological health now also need to be managed using a risk management approach. This means organizations have a duty to:

  • identify psychosocial hazards
  • assess psychosocial risks
  • take appropriate measures to control these risks, and
  • review the control measures to determine if they are working as intended.

When it comes to controlling risks, businesses must eliminate psychosocial risks in the workplace, or if that is not reasonably practicable, minimize these risks so far as is reasonably practicable. These changes mean that the psychological health and safety of workers must be protected in the same way that their physical health is protected and that psychosocial risks are now a clearly defined WHS issue.

Despite the wording around psychological health being in the model Act since its inception, responsibility for mental health (or ill health) in many organizations has been unfairly placed on individual workers. The amendments strengthen the existing regulatory framework by making it clear that organizations are responsible for fostering mentally healthy workplaces. Furthermore, businesses must not just respond to hazards as they arise but take active steps to prevent psychosocial risks in the first place. These legislative changes signal a shift in focus by the WHS regulators in each jurisdiction towards mental health. The question is: are you (the employer) ready?

The status of changes around Australia

At the time of publishing (October 2022):

In a subsequent blog post we explore how organizations can identify psychosocial hazards.

Key Takeaways

  • The Australian regulatory landscape around workplace mental health is changing.
  • Psychological health and safety must be managed in the same way as physical safety using a risk management approach.
  • These changes represent a significant change in thinking around who is responsible for mental health at work and a transition from a reactive response model to a proactive risk prevention model.