By Lucy Coogan and Calum Woods, NRA Legal 

SafeWork Australia reports that approximately six per cent of all accepted workers’ compensation claims relate to work-related mental health conditions. It was further reported that the most common causes of the claims were: work pressure (31%), bullying and harassment (29%), and exposure to violence (18%).

Any experienced human resources or people experience professional will invariably have encountered situations of employees claiming a work-related psychological injury. These situations are notoriously difficult to manage, as it is not uncommon for employees to claim further injury after their employer starts looking into the situation.

Under work health and safety law, “health” is defined as including both physical and psychological health. As such, employers must ensure, insofar as is reasonably practicable, that workers are not exposed to risks to psychological health and safety in the workplace.

However until recently, there has not been any formal guidance around what these risks are, and what steps can be taken to ensure employers are complying their obligations. In a recent review undertaken by SafeWork Australia, it was recommended that each State and Territory implement regulations that specifically deal with identifying psychosocial risks, and the control measures to manage those risks.

Although it remains to be seen whether the recommendations will be adopted, there are substantial benefits to taking proactive steps to protecting the psychological health of employees.

Positive psychological health has been linked to improved employee motivation and engagement, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and decreased business disruption from work-related psychological injuries.

What are the risks to psychological health in the retail industry?

The retail industry is the largest employer of young people in the country. Coupled with the fact that people aged between 18 and 24 years old have the highest prevalence of mental illness of any age group, means that the retail industry in particular must be aware of potential mental health risks in the workplace.

SafeWork Australia ranked supermarkets and grocery stores as having one of the highest overall incidence rates of bullying and harassment, below such industries as a public order, residential care, hospitals, and social services.

While bullying and harassment are significant risks to psychological health and many employers have taken steps to reduce its impact – such as by implementing bullying and harassment policies – there are many hidden risks as well.

Lack of recognition for work performance and lack of training opportunities are both frequently cited as reasons for poor psychological health.

Other common risks are more systemic to the retail industry, such as a lack of opportunities for advancement, or being required to complete repetitive and monotonous tasks. Night-shift workers, for example, may be impacted by feelings of isolation or fatigue caused by long periods of vigilance with infrequent events or contact with others.

Finally, there continues to be a significant push by both the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the NRA to reduce the incidence rate of customer violence in the retail sector. For the period 2008 to 2013, workplace or occupational violence specifically (including customer violence) was the third most common cause (15%) of workers’ compensation claims for work-related mental health injuries.

How can these risks be managed?

Prevention is always better than cure. In the first instance employees should be encouraged to disclose their concerns about hazards to their psychological health, in the same way that they should disclose hazards to their physical health.

Where a specific report is received, such as complaints of fatigue or bullying, immediate action should be taken. Insofar as practicable, employees should be provided with training and advancement opportunities, and be given a degree of variety in the tasks they are required to perform.

Any reports of low morale, disengagement, reduced productivity or increased absenteeism should be closely monitored. These could be signs of work-related stress or general psychological distress.

In the case of customer violence, effective control mechanisms may include implementing cash handling procedures, ensuring that stores are adequately staffed, or adopting a ‘right to refuse service’ policy.

Managing workers who have sustained an injury is wrought with challenges for employers, with competing WH&S, workers’ compensation and discrimination laws, needing to be reconciled against the requirements of the business.

An appropriate return to work plan may need to be prepared in consultation with a work health and safety expert. Where a psychological injury has rendered an employee unfit to return to the workplace, an appropriate procedure must be followed in order to exit the employee from the business.

At a more basic level, training for all staff in acceptable workplace conduct, and work health and safety training for managers, is quickly becoming a necessity.

If you require assistance with managing an ill or injured employee, or would like to learn more about training options available for managers and staff, contact NRA Legal on 1800 RETAIL (738 245).