Psychosocial hazard compliance in Australia’s construction industry

A compliant, effective approach to workplace health and safety should address both physical and mental health. Especially since, in construction, there are documented links between the two.

In an Australian study that conducted in-depth interviews with 18 commercial construction workers, the researchers found that only six (a third) felt physical pain didn’t impact their mental health at work.  

The remaining 12 painted a complicated picture of how physical ailments affect mental states, from feeling miserable because they were required to work through pain to becoming “very short” with co-workers.

In its wider survey, which covered 67 workers, the same research found that 17.6% of those aged 20-29 were already experiencing a variety of physical issues in their bodies on a daily basis. In other words, even younger workers could suffer physical distress causing mental distress.  

We covered all this research and more in an earlier article on the Australian construction industry, where we also cited ABS numbers that revealed the longest workplace injury absences came from mental health issues and a Black Dog Institute study that found a quarter of Australian construction workers had “high symptoms” of depression, anxiety or both.  

We reference it again because, while the previous article addressed the wellbeing challenges in Australia’s construction industry, this article looks at what some of those challenges mean for compliance.  

The point to keep in mind is this: just as people find it difficult to compartmentalise their physical and mental pain, no company should believe they can entirely compartmentalise their wellbeing strategy.

Psychosocial hazards and safety training

The Model Workplace Health and Safety Act doesn’t call for organisations to merely address psychosocial hazards when they crop up but to identify them ahead of time, eliminate them where possible and mitigate them where not.  

Not that organisations need any encouragement to have safe worksites, but evidence that recurring physical ailments become mental health issues makes it even more important to take a proactive approach to injury prevention.  

The research suggests this should include tailored interventions, rather than one-size-fits-all.  

In a paper published in Safety Science in 2019, the researchers conducted a face-to-face survey with 228 construction workers and found that they come out of “safety training with slightly better knowledge of safety risks and safety behaviour but not caring anymore about safety.”

On top of this, the researchers found older workers didn’t respond as much to current training and that university educated construction workers (an increasing demographic) might react better to a changed approach. The researchers surmise that their results call for “safety training to be more responsive, flexible and interactive”.

A 2016 UK scoping review of studies that examined workplace wellbeing programmes supports this view. Three papers that dealt exclusively with physical injuries and disorders in the construction industry found “promising results” for home exercise interventions and training interventions targeted at specific jobs. It notes that they “required minimal initial investment but appeared to reap sustained rewards”.

Healthy Business offers a variety of interventions that fit this definition. For example, our manual handling intervention designed to mitigate issues with repetitive and challenging work tasks. It's highly targeted and begins with a consultant observing the workplace and building a rapport with workers to develop a customised solution specific to those workers' needs

By getting physical and safety training right, you help eliminate psychosocial hazards, because the repetitive high-risk tasks of today can become tomorrow’s chronic pain that leads to mental distress.

Workplace bullying as a psychosocial hazard

On its website, Safe Work Australia is very to the point about bullying, stating it “can cause both psychological and physical harm, making it a risk to health and safety” and that model WHS laws required companies to “manage the health and safety risks of workplace bullying”.

This is crucial in the construction sector. In a 2020 report conducted for MATES in Construction (Queensland), academics from Central Queensland University ran through a series of studies and found research that suggested:

- At least 10% of construction staff and as many as 20% were exposed to workplace bullying

- Workplace bullying was found to be associated with “mental and physical health problems, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, burnout, increased intentions to leave, and reduced job satisfaction and organisational commitment”

- Widespread evidence that bullying “increased risk of sickness absence”

- Evidence that bullying had strong links to suicidal ideation

A separate study published in a 2021 edition of Frontiers in Psychiatry conducted novel research on the links between bullying and mental health issues in apprentices. It found apprentices felt bullying of their cohort was “entrenched in the worksite and industry culture”.

Interestingly, it also found indications bullying might be associated with substance abuse and working for larger organisations, among other factors.  

In terms of compliance, most organisations know that bullying is a psychosocial hazard and is covered by a section of the Fair Work Act. But addressing it is another issue, one that often requires organisations to go beyond simple interventions.  

In a study published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management, the authors found that:

1. “Narrowly focused [bullying] interventions may limit value by neglecting other gaps within organisations."

2. Interventions that were more comprehensive and addressed individuals, teams, and the entire company worked

3. Finally, and again like much of the above research, they found that “intervention contents should be relevant and tailored to the specific context”

These findings are startlingly close to some of the conclusions in the above-mentioned 2016 UK scoping review. There, the researchers looked at the full swath of studies analysed and offered the following points:

1. Tailored interventions and discerning “high-risk individuals” improved success rates

2. There’s a positive effect when workers help develop the intervention

3. The “most effective” interventions were long term interventions

4. Wider interventions, that address culture and operations, were better than those focused on individuals

Finally, the researchers felt that one of the “most important conclusions” to draw was that wellbeing should be viewed holistically.

Getting compliant, then going beyond

If you’re a construction company with specific concerns regarding psychosocial hazards, Healthy Business can help with risk identification, mitigating known hazards and providing employee support. We also offer wellbeing solutions that run the gamut including employee health coaching (covering mental, physical, lifestyle, sleep/fatigue and muscular skeletal health) and manual handling solutions delivered by qualified health coaches and mental health presentations delivered by a Clinical Psychologist.  

At Healthy Business we refer to the holistic approach as “going beyond the compliance” and have written before about how it transforms an operating cost into a revenue driver.  

We’ll consult with you and work in collaboration because we believe the answers to your problems can only be found by asking the right questions. Get in touch with us today.

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