20 April 2023
Psychosocial risk has shot up corporate agendas in the past 12 months becoming a critical feature for an organisations safety landscape. Leaders and organisations must not only come to grips with what psychosocial risk is, and why it's so vital to operations, but also what needs to happen to address it.
In this first episode, Ashurst announces its partnership with cultural transformation specialists Sentis who support a range of businesses through safety and cultural diagnostics to discuss what psychosocial risk is, why it's a hot topic, and the trends developing across the market. Importantly, the episode shares genuine insights and practical considerations in order to manage the risk and what the partnership with Sentis means for Ashurst clients.
The episode features four eminent authorities on psychosocial risk, Trent Sebbens, Employment and Safety Partner at Ashurst, Anthony Gibbs, CEO of Sentis, Tony Morris, Partner at Ashurst Risk Advisory, and Amy Hawkes, a leading psychologist from Sentis.
Hello, and welcome to Ashurst Business Agenda. My name is Lauren Brignull from Ashurst's Risk Advisory Team in Australia and to kick off this episode, we have some big news. Today, we're announcing a new partnership between Ashurst and safety culture specialist, Sentis. In this episode, we'll explain what this partnership means for our clients and in particular, how it will help clients address psychosocial risk.
Now, if that phrase psychosocial risk rings a bell with you, you're not alone. Psychosocial risk has shot up corporate agendas in the past 12 months becoming a critical feature for safety landscape, but we also know that many leaders and organizations are still coming to grips with what psychosocial risk is, why it's so vital to operations, and most importantly, what you actually need to do about it. Over the course of two podcast episodes, we'll share genuine insights and practical considerations to managing this risk.
Today, in this first episode, we'll discuss what psychosocial risk is, why it's a hot topic, and what we're seeing across the market. Then in our second episode, we'll discuss how to get ahead of the curve and crucially what to stop or start doing to achieve productivity outcomes and strategic benefits that come from having a mentally healthy and safe workplace. For both episodes, I've called upon four eminent authorities on psychosocial risk, Trent Sebbens, Employment and Safety Partner at Ashurst, Anthony Gibbs, the CEO of Sentis, Tony Morris, Partner at Ashurst Risk Advisory, and Amy Hawkes, a leading psychologist from Sentis.
Before we start, at Ashurst, we acknowledge First Nations people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work in Australia, and we pay our respects to their Elders, past and present. We extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people listening today. Now, without further ado, here's our first discussion. Thank you, Tony and Anthony, for joining us here today. Firstly, I'd like to start by briefly discussing the partnership with you both. Tony, could you make the big announcement for us please?
Sure. Thanks, Lauren. It's great to be here. Look, we already have an amazing safety leadership program at Ashurst, where we combine our legal and risk consulting capabilities. What the partnership does with Sentis is it enhances that offering to our clients. We brought in the best safety culture experts in the business, in my opinion, with their diagnostic tools and their uplift programs. Over to Anthony.
Yeah, thanks, Tony. We at Sentis, as mentioned, focus on culture and leadership to create cultural transformation. We wanted to find our partner who was values-aligned, who wanted to create positive impacts within organizations that could focus on the areas of the legal and the risk obligations for our clients. So, it's a match made in heaven as far as we're concerned. We provide complimentary services in a values-aligned way, which can affect real change within organizations. So, we're really excited about the partnership. I'm really excited about the opportunity to join you on this podcast.
Thanks, Tony and Anthony, and we'll talk more about the partnership as we go through the podcast. I think, first of all, it's really important that we ground ourself in what psychosocial risk is. Trent, could you kick things off by telling us about what this risk is and why it's actually so complex for businesses?
Yeah, sure. Thanks, Lauren. That's certainly been a focus for employers, workers and regulators, and more recently, also legislators. It is a difficult area to get your arms around, particularly if you've been thinking about certain things that we're going to talk about from a human resource or employment-only lens. It's very important that employers as well as workers and others now take a holistic approach to considering what we're going to describe collectively as psychosocial hazard at risk as not just human resources or employment issues, but combined work, health, and safety issues. Those psychosocial hazards and risks are really ones that arise in the workplace from a number of sources and are ones that pose a risk to psychological, or more traditionally called, mental health.
They arise in a number of ways that can include the design or management of work, and that includes job demands and tasks. It can also come from systems of work, including how the work is managed or is organized or how workers are supported in performing their duties. It can also arise from environmental and workplace conditions such as the design of the workplace and its layout, as well as environmental conditions that workers might be exposed to. Really, this has been the primary focus, at least at the outset of the journey, of considering psychosocial risk in the workplace, that is, workplace interactions and behaviors and in particular, workplace harassment and aggression. So, those are hazards and the risks arising from them might pose a risk of psychological harm even if it doesn't actually result in any physical harm.
Now, the focus really has been upon that last area that I've mentioned, harassment and aggression, coming out of the respective work report, which is now about two years ago, by the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who has thrown a light on this area and the lesson arising from that was that a safety lens really needed to be placed on workplace sexual harassment. From that, employers and others in workplaces have come to realize that broader than that, bullying, harassment, and victimization also need to have that safety lens. Amy, I know you've been thinking about this and it is a complex area for employers and other workplace [inaudible 00:06:04] to get their arms around. What are you talking to those in workplaces about this area?
Yeah, thanks, Trent. I think it's been really great to, as you described, see that attention be paid to sexual harassment and violence and bullying in the workplace and give that attention to that interaction, as you described, between the individual and their environment. This is something that's been such a big part of occupational health psychology for such a long time that it's really great to see that attention start to be paid to it and for people to start thinking about, "How do I use this? What do I do with it? How do I think about it in my own workplace?"
There's a lot of great resources out there and a lot of great information, and I think you've done a really nice job explaining that interaction that people might have between themselves, their workplace, the sorts of work tasks they might be asked to do, the interactions they might be having, and how that in turn can have an impact on their psychological wellbeing, their sense of stress or strain, and how that impacts their mental health over the long term. It's what we're really looking at here is that prolonged sense of stress or strain and having that long-term impact on people's mental health, how we can seek to improve workplaces so that doesn't keep happening.
Thanks, Amy and Trent. That's such a good grounding for us to be thinking about this type of risk, and I think it's a really nice lead into thinking about it at quite a high level within organizations. Tony, I'd love to hear from you about why boards and executives should be worried and maybe if not worried, proactive about this type of risk.
Yeah, thanks, Lauren. Look, some boards and officers and execs may be worried, but I'm going to suggest that's not a useful emotion, really, when you're thinking about this risk. My suggested lens for executives and officers of boards is to see this as really an opportunity for the business. I say an opportunity because I think it's an opportunity to improve productivity and performance for the organization. Psychosocial risk, I've heard it be said and I agree with, is the new frontier for work, health, and safety and I do believe that.
When I think about what are the three most important reasons for me, why we should do this, and when I say we, I mean organizations and all employers, it's the number one risk of our time in my opinion. We should do it because we care about our people and that's why we should do it and get it right. That's number one. Number two, for me, it's good business. I've already mentioned the productivity and performance improvement, and that is really why we should get the proactive controls in place. Number three, and Trent's already explained, it's the law and it's the criminal law. If we don't properly manage this risk well, we can have our organizations, our offices, our executives guilty of criminal offenses for failing to ensure health and safety. So, it really doesn't matter what motivates one. I think it's all three, but number one, because we care about our people.
Thanks, Tony. Anthony, Sentis is at the cutting edge of this risk, supporting a range of businesses through safety and cultural diagnostics. I'm so interested to hear what you've seen happening in this space.
Yes. Look, Lauren, the promotion of the legislation has really created, I guess, a wave of focus on this area. I can't help but agree with Tony in terms of you are seeing a lot of ruffled feathers as a reaction to this and you've seen organizations going, "Well, how do we determine whether the injury was caused at home or at work? How do we break up the stresses? How do we make sense of all of these elements?" What I'm seeing organizations do as a response to this movement at the moment is reacting to issues as they arise. So, these organizations get caught in this perpetual game of whack-a-mole. It's like, "Right, we'll solve that issue, we'll solve that issue, we'll solve that issue."
I guess, to speak to Tony's point, I think the opportunity here is to flip the conversation and say, "Well, actually, psychosocial and physical safety are crucially linked at their core and if you want to get performance out of one, you need to get performance out of the other." So if we get that right, we've got an opportunity to make an overall safer organization. We've also got an opportunity to create, I guess, alignment about what we'd call a universal truth, the assumption that everyone wants to get home safe. So, you can actually leverage safety and psychosocial safety to create organizational alignment, organizational commitment, and get productivity and a whole lot of other benefits as a result of this.
I think the opportunity for organizations is to completely flip their headspace around this topic and go, "You know what? This is a great opportunity for us to actually get alignment around the way we do things around here and to create a place where we can bring our best selves to work." So, as Tony mentioned, the more progressive organizations who've been actually working on this prior to the legislation, they're unpacking their culture from its core. They're looking at not what the issues are, but what are the antecedents or the drivers of the current issues that are coming and they're addressing those. And then, the legislation as it's getting rolled out, it's a non-event to them because they've got to the core of the issue. So, the byproducts, if you like, in terms of that unwanted behavior just isn't there.
Yeah, Lauren, and look, consistent with Anthony, my observations are a lot of employers, organizations, appear to be grappling with psychosocial risk. When I ask myself what is the issue, why are they trying to grapple with it and finding it challenging, I think it's the safety control environment. It's very different to trying to do a risk assessment and addressing physical risks. This is about mental health and wellbeing. I can see that a number of clients and employers, they're spending money on well-intended controls that with respect probably aren't giving them a great return on investment. For example, there's always been EAP. There's a big investment in mental health first aid, but they are reactive controls and when you try and look at your return on the investment, they may not be getting a lot of return on that investment than what your clients do.
I think each client's operations and their risk profile are different. They're nuanced. You can't have one control for one client being the same for another. They are very different. And so, the controls need to be looked at and considered not just internally, but we need to use the experts that have done the research about what works and what doesn't work. I think they need to be involved in these risk assessments and I think that will really help the decision-making of officers who ultimately must decide where they put their money. As I said before, I think they will get a huge return on investment if they start looking at proactive controls.
100% agree, Tony. I think that's such an important point that we're not reacting, as we would say that tertiary level, that after somebody's injured, after somebody is really not well, we need to get in and help them at that point. We need to shift the attention back to those antecedents, back to those things that are causing the problem, think about what we can change in the workplace in the way work is designed, managed, set up, the way our leaders are communicating. There's so many elements to this that you're right, you need to unpack it individually for your organization, get the right data behind you, and design the intervention based on your needs.
Underneath all of that, I always find so important, is that sense of vision or culture or what do we care about? What's important to us? Are you just fixing these things because you think you should, or are you fixing these things because they are genuinely important to you and they actually are going to make a difference for your people? When you focus through that lens and you have that frame around your thinking, that flows through to so many other elements of the way you work, the way you talk, in just everyday life. It's those micro interactions that I think add up to really achieving some good change in this space.
Yeah. Look, I agree, Amy. I think part of the challenge that organizations are going to have to grapple with at the highest level of the organization is what are the, I guess, involuntary reactions often which are going to be unhelpful in the effective deployment of this legislation? It's that old story, "Hey, back in my day, we used to walk five miles through the snow to get to... Things were way harder. We didn't have any of these protective factors put into place. What's wrong with people moving forward?"
So, there are going to be all these attitudes and frames bubbling around for people, which is going to trigger their threat response around this legislation. If we really want to create effective change in this space, we're going to have to see leaders, I guess, have a level of vulnerability and seek to understand and walk a mile in the shoes of the people who are experiencing some of these challenges. So, it's a huge challenge I think for a number of organizations is, how do we reframe this, as Tony mentioned earlier, from a threat and a problem to be solved and a whole lot of additional burden that is getting placed upon organizations to an opportunity to actually make better places to work?
I think I'd add to that, Anthony, as well, we're likely to see employers and others in workplaces go on a journey similar to what we've seen in relation to, if I can call it, physical work, health, and safety, where there's been a focus on doing particular things to implement engineering controls or the like. For most employers, that will be the most immediate reaction and also the simplest thing to do. That makes sense, but ultimately, as you and Amy have also said, it will involve a behavioral change to move away behavioral-based safety approach to psychosocial risk. That will involve a cultural change within businesses and also the leadership, from the leaders within those organizations, to demonstrate and model that behavior and to lead the way for their organizations about how they are going to deal with workplace stressors and psychosocial risks for their organization.
Thanks, Trent. Off the back of that, could you talk us through, if everyone can't use the same set of controls, what should operations be doing as a first step to responding to this risk? What would that first action be if you were coming to this fresh?
Well, the best starting point, Lauren, is a risk assessment on psychosocial hazards. So, the identification of those psychosocial hazards in your particular business or organization and the risk that arise from them. That will be different depending upon your organization, but that will help you discern what are those differences. The most immediate focus that we have certainly seen has been from employers on the risk of bullying and harassment and victimization, and that is a worthy thing to focus on because it certainly hasn't been thought of in that way, that is, looking at those matters through a work, health, and safety lens.
To use the mining sector as an example, it has placed a particular focus on that and the risk of sexual harassment at fly in and fly out of remote locations and has undertaken risk assessments in relation to camps and villages and assessing then what support systems are available to workers at those places, but also the design of the camps and villages, such as the layout, lighting, and security, to understand where hazards and the risks arising in relation to psychosocial risk may come from and then to implement controls. And then when workers are exposed to those risks, such as when they make a complaint or there's an incident, how that's then managed and investigated and that that's done trauma-informed ways that you don't re-traumatize the complainant.
That's an initial approach and example of how some employers in certain sectors have been looking at it, but I think for employers, generally speaking, undertaking that risk assessment, there is just no substitute for doing that, to identify what are the particular psychosocial hazards in your business and what are the risks arising from them. Tony, I know you've been assisting clients on that front, in considering beyond that then the life-cycle of managing safety about psychosocial risk because there is much more to be done than once you've done that risk assessment.
Yeah, look, I thought about exactly the same thing. It's about the risk assessment to start off with. Trent and I have jointly presented due diligence presentations to officers and boards and executives about this particular risk because it is so different. First of all, the awareness, but then it ultimately comes down to a full risk assessment. If I fall back on my experience and what's happening in the market, there is roughly 15 or 16 different psychosocial hazards that Safe Work Australia indicates on the website, if you go and have a look.
That's one big risk assessment if you're trying to assess them in one risk assessment, as Trent indicated. The way that we've been doing it with clients is we tend to break them up into three workshops or three themes to do a risk assessment. One is work design and management, the way work is designed, as Trent said, and the way work is managed and change management and the like. The second is what I'll call conduct or misconduct, things like bullying, harassment, and victimization. The third is the work environment, as Trent said, plant equipment. They're all very different hazards and we've seen them in these three workshops.
Before one comes to the workshop, you have to do a diagnosis. You have to get data. You have to get information to inform the workshop. You can't go in cold. And so with respect, a great amount of the works in the preparation for those workshops, they're intense and you'll come out with a controlled plan that ultimately officers will consider and decide whether or not to put the time, cost, and resources into managing this risk. It's not easy. It needs a big investment, and that's why it needs leader support. For me, this is really a leadership issue.
Thanks, Tony. Our indicators would link between leadership and this challenge. Isn't that right, Amy?
Yep, 100%, Anthony. Leadership's really important in this process. I love that you've started off with collecting that data and doing that really detailed risk assessment because that's just so key to getting the right information, but we know that we need to do something off the back of that information too. I think sometimes, when this is all new and a bit unknown, the idea of even collecting that information can raise a bit of a fear response in people because it's like, "I don't even know what I'd do if I found out that's happening." So, actually feeling supported, knowing that there's, like you said, a lot of work that's been done in this space for quite a long time, identifying the issues, step number one, but there's always things that you can do and always things you can improve.
I answered your question, Lauren, talking about the first practical step that you might take, and Tony and others have already talked about leadership. I think really the step before that is the leaders being engaged in relation to psychosocial risks and why that is important for their organization or business and demonstrating, either in a public way or in some moment, for their business about why this is significant for them and why they're about to start that journey for their organization.
That's a good call out, Trent. I think it can be tricky because sometimes, if you get the information and the leadership team isn't willing to receive it, you can actually do more harm than good if the reactions or the responses to that aren't helpful ones. So really, taking some time to meet with your executive, meet with your board, understand where they're at around this challenge, unpack the frames that are both helpful and hindering around this legislation and the response to it is crucial. Sometimes, you might actually need to run some sessions where it's about educating that group, aligning that group, getting them in the right headspace before the downstream efforts, or sometimes you can lead with the downstream diagnostics as well. So, it is a good call out and it will be unique to different executives and board groups depending on where they're at in their journey.
Just on that note, before we finish this initial episode, it would just be great to get your insights on, I guess, that key aspect of managing the risk. We've talked about the first step, but really, one of the key things there is then being able to measure, monitor, and report on how change is then put into place. Tony brought up earlier, what's the return on investment? That's a bit of a difficult one in this space. So, can I just get your thoughts on how organizations can actually use the information available to them, but then also take steps to make sure that they understand what's happening in their workplaces when they do take steps to address this risk?
Yeah, thanks, Lauren. Part of the challenge that we're seeing with organizations is there isn't actually a lot of data that they've been collecting today. This hasn't really been on a lot of organizations' radars. So, as a result of that, you go into their incident data, some organizations have nothing. Some have very little data. You might be able to pull some themes out of EAP. Maybe, they've got some old culture or whatever data in play. But a lot of the time, a lot of it's not that useful.
Now, the challenge that you're now going to face is with this legislation being rolled out, people are actually going to have words and language and awareness of these experiences within the workplace. So, things that at the past they might have just accepted because they thought it was the norm, they now might be challenging or they might be challenged to go, "All right, actually, maybe I shouldn't be experiencing this type of feeling or emotion or physical," whatever the circumstances are. "Maybe, I shouldn't be feeling this way every single day."
So, for a lot of organizations, doing the risk assessment, as been suggested, and getting some cultural benchmarking data are going to be pretty important to start the journey towards tackling some of this and actually taking a proactive approach to addressing a lot of these issues within the workplace. My challenge would be, how do you set a benchmark for yourself at this point in time? There's a bit of work to be done in a lot of people's safety management systems to look at, how do you collect this data in a meaningful way?
How do you run an incident investigation, for example, around an issue like this without the person who's experienced the circumstances feeling like they're being blamed? That incident investigation, how do you collect the data? That's all the challenge. The other big challenge, which I think is going to overlay with this, is people who experience bullying, people who experience sexual harassment, there's a whole raft of emotions that they'll be going through, which is potentially going to impact on reporting and willingness to talk about this and how public they want issues to be made.
Imagine you've been experiencing sexual harassment. You're going to feel fear. You might feel shame. There's all these emotions that'll be bubbling up, which make the whole thing complex. Again, that incident investigation, how the data is dealt with, is just even more sensitive. I'd imagine Tony and Trent are better positioned to comment on the best way to gather that data and to support people through that process from an incident investigation perspective.
Yeah, look, absolutely. Thanks, Anthony. I couldn't agree more about that. Back to the risk assessment again, but not to harp on that too much, look, it's not enough. If I think about reporting, we all know it's not enough just to have the lag indicator reports come in to the board or to the executive. For example, in this area, data that you will have, it's not too hard to find because it's easy. It's workers' compensation data or it might be the number of complaints. Yet, that's all lag indicators. It's not being proactive. I also find that the reporting that usually comes to officers and executives isn't coming from safety people. It's coming from HR people. Again, they do their job very well, but it's all reactive following an event and we know in safety, you have to be proactive. You have to be on the front foot.
That is why, back to the risk assessment, it's so important because it is going to tell us what are the proactive controls that need to be in place. And then we ask ourselves, what must go right for this control environment to work? That's what you need reporting on. They're the proactive lead performance indicators. If officers are going to be able to demonstrate they're exercising due diligence, they have to be able to ask for these reports on the critical controls that must go right. For me, that's a key. Without the risk assessment, you don't know what questions to ask. I think that's why also officers are grappling. "What do we ask? What do we ask our management to report to us on?" Do the risk assessment first, and you'll find out what.
I think of the investigations as well, Anthony, you make a good point about the way in which they are conducted. We've talked about putting our work, health, and safety lens on these particular risks, and that includes harassment and workplace bullying and aggression. While we're saying put a work, health, and safety lens on them, some of the work, health, and safety systems that you'll be very familiar with are not really fit for purpose for some of these types of matters. So, if you have a sensitive sexual harassment complaint, undertaking a transparent root cause investigation process, in which [inaudible 00:28:05] there are many people involved and therefore those many people would then be exposed to the complaint and its details, is unlikely to be an appropriate way in which to deal with a matter such as that.
So, there is a need for the bringing together of human resources systems, which Tony has identified are reactive, and extending them to think not just about the reactive incident that is being analyzed or the complaint, but also then the systemic causes for that incident, as well as then from a work, health, and safety perspective, perhaps bringing some concepts from human resources around dealing with complainants in a trauma-informed way, that is, you don't re-introduce the trauma [inaudible 00:28:47] transparently investigating or revealing the details of the incident to others, but you're sensitive about the way in which that is all dealt with and that there is a level of confidentiality in dealing with the complainants in that process. So, a bringing together of the best of those two aspects of both, incident management and investigation processes.
To round that out from a cultural change perspective, we would be encouraging organizations to gather their risk data, gather their cultural data, look at the antecedents or the drivers of the current organizational outcomes they're getting, look at the interventions they've put into place and communicate the challenge and the intervention to the organization transparently, so that the workforce is in behind it, and then to Tony's point, look at, "Well, how do we know we're being successful in implementing the change processes that we've committed to as part of this transformational journey?" Our real encouragement is to set that on a quarterly basis to transparently report progress made against those objectives and celebrate successes as things are being implemented and rolled out and changed. That gives people a sense of progress. That gives people a sense that the organization is committed to the change that they've said that they're going to undertake.
Thank you everyone for that amazing discussion. I think it's going to lead us into the second session that we do really well. By way of summary today, we've talked about the importance of that holistic approach to dealing with this risk. In particular, we just rounded that out with some discussions on the complex overlay of the different legislation that we're talking about, whether that's in the work, health, and safety space or the HR space, and how these two worlds really need to come together to not only provide opportunities around productivity and performance, but really keeping people at the heart of why we're putting these interventions in place to start with.
I think one of the really important things that Amy talked about was that it doesn't have to be huge change that we're talking about. Things like micro interactions can have such an important role in how these sorts of risks play out, but the importance of bringing all of that together initially with a risk assessment is something that I think organizations really need to think closely about doing as a first step in order to make sure they understand and appreciate the risk from their people's perspective, but then also have the opportunity to look at what interventions do need to be put in place and the necessary processes to make that work in practice. By that, I mean having the opportunity to measure and monitor performance. And then also, some of what Trent was talking about there, the importance of investigations being fit for purpose. That might mean changes to your safety management system, it might mean changes to your HR processes, and it might mean changes to how you look at work, health, and safety reporting and what information you have available.
Thank you for listening to Ashurst Business Agenda. This episode has been part of our two-part series on psychosocial risk. To find out more about our partnership with Sentis, visit ashurst.com and to hear the other episode in this miniseries, or indeed any of our other Business Agenda episodes, you'll find us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. While you're there, feel free to subscribe to Ashurst Business Agenda and leave us a rating or review. Until next time, thank you for listening and goodbye for now.