Two major compliance risks impacting professional service companies

Even thriving firms can fall victim to the hidden risks of high-pressure work and sedentary behaviour.

When Healthy Business first looked at the state of wellbeing in professional services, we unearthed what the data said about the challenges Australian companies were facing in the sector. Here, we zero in on two factors, the compliance risks of certain workplace environments and the perennial health issue facing desk workers – prolonged sedentary behaviour.

A quick head’s up. Below, we’ll be referring to psychosocial hazards. If any of the terms or concepts are confusing, check out our guide.

1. Work pressure, harassment and bullying

As our state of the industry report revealed, "work pressure" and "work-related harassment and/or bullying" are the leading causes of compensation claims for psychological injuries among professionals, representing a combined 64% of all claims.

While many companies have established policies to address the well-known compliance risk of bullying and harassment, they may overlook a critical aspect of psychosocial hazard regulations: the need to identify, mitigate, and monitor environments that foster such behaviours.  

The regulations acknowledge a link between workplace environments and the likelihood of bullying and harassment. A promotion, remuneration or reward structure designed to maximise productivity by recognising individual achievement could make conflict between employees more likely, for example.

As outlined by Safe Work Australia, several potential hazards that warrant identification and mitigation, including:  

  • Extended Work Hours: Periods or projects that encourage or necessitate prolonged work hours, such as tight deadlines or end-of-financial-year sales pushes.
  • Skill Mismatches: Assigning tasks or responsibilities to individuals lacking adequate training or experience (e.g., tasking a junior educator with leading senior training sessions).
  • Emotionally Charged Interactions: Roles that require employees to manage or navigate emotionally charged situations, such as communicating significant company errors to clients or delivering difficult news regarding medical procedures.

Beyond mere compliance, it's strategically advantageous to transform your culture so that wellbeing is prioritised more than competition. While a degree of healthy competition can drive productivity, excessive or unchecked conflict can have detrimental effects.

A study published in the International Journal of Quality and Service Sciences revealed that employees whose wellbeing suffered due to conflict often resorted to "knowledge hiding behaviours." These included feigning ignorance ("playing dumb") when assistance was requested or engaging in "evasion" by sharing incomplete, inaccurate, or untimely information.

The study authors explain that this behaviour stems from a desire to safeguard one's perceived competence and standing within the organisation. Essentially, employees prioritise protecting their limited resources and professional image, even if it undermines overall organisational productivity.

The link between physical and mental health

High-pressure work environments can elevate the risk of physical injuries. A Safe Work Australia report on work-related musculoskeletal disorders cites research attributing 14% to 63% of lower back injuries and 28% to 84% of upper extremity injuries to psychosocial factors.

While this connection might seem unexpected, consider these examples:  

  • Overexerted healthcare workers pushing their physical limits are more susceptible to accidents.
  • Desk-bound employees who overuse devices late into the night are more prone to stress-related neck and shoulder pain.  

As the Safe Work Australia report states, “It is clear that psychosocial hazards are not peripheral to physical hazards. That is, psychosocial hazards can be directly involved in the development of an injury and in some cases are more important than physical hazards.”

2. Sedentary work

Speaking of how physical and mental health affect each other, beyond its well-documented links to poor wellbeing and increased mortality risk (see our previous article) a sedentary lifestyle could itself be a psychosocial hazard.  

An extensive study published in BMJ Open analysed data from thousands of individuals and determined that those with the highest levels of sedentary behaviour (the top 33%) exhibited the highest risk of psychological distress.  

While numerous interventions aim to curb sedentary work, the question remains: which ones succeed and which don’t?  

One compliance-first approach is to identify the risk then teach your workers about it – the most scalable way to do this is through digital interventions such as screen notifications and e-newsletters on the topic. A study in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity found that digital interventions such as those could reduce sedentary behaviour by about 30 minutes per workday.  

However, simply reducing time spent sitting may not be an indication of any improvement in wellbeing.  

A study of Western Australian workers compared employees who retained their traditional sitting workstations with an intervention group who were given sit-stand workstations. Those in the latter group reduced their sitting time by 100 minutes daily. Surprisingly, however, the researchers found no significant differences in mental or physical health outcomes between the two groups.  

The researchers suggest this is because, “consistent with similar studies… a single individual physical environmental modification (sit-stand workstation) is not enough to change stepping behaviours.”  

They note that while the intervention group may have stood more, they didn't fundamentally alter their overall sedentary patterns by breaking up prolonged periods of sitting – and it’s those prolonged periods that are most detrimental.  

What does seem to work is a combination of approaches; guidance, encouragement, and concrete ways to improve wellbeing.  

A US study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health separated 95 sedentary workers into four intervention groups.  

  1. Desk only: who were given a height adjustable desk so they could stand
  1. Program only: who were given an online sedentary behaviour modification program
  1. Desk + Program: who were given both of the above
  1. Control group: that weren’t offered anything  

While those in the program-only group did report less fatigue severity than those in the control group, it was the Desk + Program group that saw the most impressive benefits. They reported less severe fatigue than the control group, alongside shorter fatigue, and that fatigue interfered less with work.  

On top of that, they were happier, more focused, more productive, more satisfied at work, and even more satisfied out of work than the control group.  

This study highlights the effectiveness of a multi-faceted approach to wellbeing interventions. It’s not enough to offer a standing desk or an elliptical, nor is it enough to teach and remind people that sedentary behaviour is unhealthy. You need to offer help that’s both practical and theoretical.  

Essentially, you need to make wellbeing part of your culture.  

What makes this study particularly relevant to professional services is that it was conducted during COVID with people working from home – suggesting that these kinds of efforts help your employees no matter where they are. That’s important because, as we said in our previous article on the sector, the higher rates of remote work in professional services can be a challenge.

Want to get comprehensive about compliance?

Of course, workplace dynamics and sedentary behaviour are just two of the many compliance issues facing Australia’s professional services.  

But even a long article that touched on them all would come down to the same essential lesson: company-wide wellbeing is not an end goal you reach. First up, it’s an issue of compliance. Then, if you really want to see bottom-line benefits, it has to be a value and a mindset.  

No matter where you are on that spectrum, Healthy Business is ready to help you.  

For more on the connection between physical and mental health, and strategizing to maximise both, see our article. If you’re worried about workplace conflict, increasing levels of burnout, or just want to understand your employees’ wellbeing issues and help them, Healthy Business specialises in a proactive intervention style we call HealthCI, which:  

  • Helps employees recognize and address their health and wellbeing needs
  • Offers tailored support and education
  • Empowers employees to make positive, sustainable changes.  

Find out more here or get in touch today.

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