Skip to content

Psychosocial safety is everyone’s right and everyone’s responsibility

14 March 2023

News and media


This guest editorial was written by ACT WorkHealth Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius for the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of practice monthly newsletter, highlighting new additions to the Regulation Policy and Practice collection on APO. The RP&P collection brings together a range of practical resources from national, local and state/territory governments, regulatory agencies and external institutions conducting monitoring, inquiries and reviews. You can receive this newsletter by  joining the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of Practice (membership is free) or subscribe to the newsletter directly.


When the International Labour Organization announced that work health and safety (WHS) was a basic human right – I Was Thrilled. For me, this not only mirrored my views and actions as the WHS Commissioner for the ACT, it also allowed for a renewed push for ensuring psychosocial safety for all workers at all workplaces. 

Psychosocial hazards are commonly found in all industries and occupations. Whether it’s the design of work, the layout of the workplace, the systems used, or the way work is communicated – all of these can pose risks to workers. We all recognise the outcomes of poorly managed psychosocial hazards, stress, burnout, harassment and bullying and even, horrifyingly, sexual harassment. But few of us truly understand that they are preventable. 

In the ACT, mental stress is number 4 on the list of workers’ compensation claims; with women more than twice as likely to make a mental stress claim. This gender difference is the largest for any type of claim made in Australia. In the ACT these claims are associated to conditions such as anxiety and stress disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Forty-three percent of these claims are made as a result of work-related harassment or workplace bullying. Work-related sexual and racial harassment are reported across the country in different surveys with anywhere between 10 and 45% of respondents reporting they have been sexually harassed at work. One in three ACT workers surveyed in the retail and hospitality industry have reported physical or verbal violence. This is consistent with national data showing one third of workers have experienced some form of work-related violence or aggression, including physical assault by their colleagues. 

What makes these statistics worse is that we know this is not the full picture. Such matters are under reported at work. They are under reported to the police. They are under reported to the regulator. This means the problem is bigger than we think it is. 

Preventing psychosocial harm is a complex problem – but it is not a wicked one. 

Together, we have the solutions.  

This is why I am delighted to be a panellist on the upcoming National Regulators Community of Practice ACT Chapter event on 20 March 2023: Are we Ok? Co-design and the regulation of psychosocial hazards. As a WHS regulator, I play a key role in ensuring duty holders comply with the WHS laws. Duty holders must understand their obligations. They must protect workers from the risks of psychosocial hazards. I make sure they identify, assess and eliminate or mitigate psychosocial hazards and risks. I require them to provide training, supervision and supports to their workers and I hold them accountable should preventable incidents occur. 

But I don’t work in isolation. 

Non-government organisations, businesses, industry associations, unions, the government, and the community all play a role in preventing psychological harm. Co-designing a regulatory response to deliver practical tools and guidance is critical to preventing harm. Collaboration, cooperation and perhaps consultation are the “co” in co-design. Listening to others and designing responsive regulation means we will make a greater impact. Together we are developing a regulatory approach and producing the practical guidance we have been asked to produce. Regulated entities are hungry for information about what their obligations in the complex area are and what compliance looks like. They want to know what my inspectors are looking for. 

Through consultation, collaboration and cooperation in the development of strategies and action plans we have come up with an approach which provides a fuller and clearer compliance and enforcement picture. We have hosted sessions about what happens when an inspector calls, we have held safety pop-ups where we have distributed information and advice. We have released our checklists and access to other resources so there is no doubt about what we expect to see in a safe system of work.  

One highlight stemming from our stakeholder engagement was the development by my team earlier this year of a suite of posters about what psychosocial hazards sound like. What you might hear at a workplace or at home after a shift, that may indicate something is not right at work. We targeted these posters to specific industries and sectors – hospitality for sexual harassment, the cleaning industry for bullying, security for work-related violence and teaching for role overload. These posters made an impact. They connected to workers. They connected to businesses. So much so that I was approached by an industry association to design posters for construction sites. They wanted these to put up in tearooms and common areas to help them promote messages of positive change and show their workers that they are committed to preventing psychological harm. 

This delivery of a shared message has had a wider impact than we expected. The posters are being shared far and wide – even internationally. This is an example of how the co-design of solutions is so much more effective and connects so many more people than the regulator acting on its own. 

The ACT Chapter of the National Regulators Community of Practice is keenly aware of the importance of collaboration. The panel on 20 March is comprised of representatives from a non-government organisation, an advocate and regulators, all working towards solutions to eliminate psychosocial risks. We will discuss what we see, what we hear and how we are changing how we work. Most importantly, we will talk about how we are doing more than working together, we are co-designing regulatory solutions in responsive and targeted ways to make the biggest impact we can. 

I look forward to seeing you there and talking with you about the importance of co-design to making positive and sustainable change.