Workplace regulations around psychosocial risks are changing rapidly. Responding to Safe Work Australia's new model 'Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work', every state and territory in Australia now has legislation outlining the responsibilities of the employer, or legislation soon to be enacted.
A psychosocial hazard refers to anything that could cause psychological harm. Examples of hazards include experiencing violence and aggression or being exposed to traumatic material.
While laws will vary from state to state, identifying and reducing psychosocial risks is a mainstay in all states and territories. If you have a workforce that is exposed to the trauma of others, you might need to consider the risk of vicarious trauma.
Changing psychosocial risk regulations
Between 2017 and 2018, a review of Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws showed that psychological health was often neglected. It was recommended that additional regulations were developed to ensure psychosocial risks in the workplace were identified, and appropriate control measures implemented.
In July 2022 Safe Work Australia updated the model 'WHS Regulations' to incorporate these recommendations. Safe Work Australia also published the final version of a new model 'Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work' to give practical guidance on how to identify, manage and control psychosocial hazards in the workplace.
Each Australian state has interpreted this code differently resulting in different legislation. Some states have enacted new legislation and others are waiting for new legislation to be enacted, we encourage you to investigate the legislation that applies to you based on the states and territories in which you operate.
All laws are expected to prioritise identifying and minimising psychosocial hazards in the workplace and focus on proactive and preventative strategies. In roles where workers are exposed to the trauma of others, vicarious trauma should be identified as a key psychosocial risk.
Vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for many people working in community services and other industries where workers are supporting others impacted by trauma.
Vicarious trauma refers to negative effects caused by repeated exposure to information about traumatic events and experiences, potentially leading to distress, dissatisfaction, hopelessness and serious mental and physical health problems. It's a common response to ongoing exposure to other people's trauma.
Some people may experience a wide range of symptoms, while others may experience problems in a particular area of their life. Common signs of vicarious trauma include:
• Inability to leave work behind at the end of the day
• Feeling you need to overstep the boundaries of your role
• Frustration, fear, anxiety, irritability
• Intrusive thoughts of a client's situation
• Disturbed sleep and racing thoughts
• Problems managing personal boundaries
• Loss of connection with self and others
• Increased time alone
• Increased need to control outcomes outside of work
• Loss of pleasure in daily activities.
How can organisations minimise the risk of vicarious trauma?
Identify and manage the risks
Employers are expected to identify reasonably foreseeable hazards that could create risk, eliminate risks where practicable, and if not practicable - to minimise those risks.
With this in mind, employers should consider:
• How frequently workers could be exposed to trauma and the severity of exposure
• How work is designed including exposure to trauma through specific job demands and tasks, how systems of work are set up, and how work is managed and supported
• The information, training and supervision that is provided to workers.
Create a culture that values safety
Imbedding processes that prioritise psychological safety helps to create an organisational culture that prioritises safety and wellbeing. Leaders and management play an important role in this by showing employees they value safety and take concerns seriously. This also helps to create positive role modelling for teams.
Where employees are at risk, training to help employees prevent, identify and manage vicarious trauma can be part of a successful workplace strategy. Training management who supervise staff, who are exposed to trauma and/or are supporting others impacted by trauma, is also critically important. This will enable supervisors to have a deeper understanding of vicarious trauma, be able to recognise the signs, understand the risk factors and what they can do to support employees and mitigate the risk.
The Sanctuary Model - Combatting Vicarious Trauma in the Workplace Online Module
The Sanctuary model is a workplace culture-change program that teaches people how to cope with adversity, stress and trauma. Our new module built from the Sanctuary framework teaches practical strategies to help prevent vicarious trauma and maintain healthy teams.
The content in this article is intended solely for informational and commentary purposes and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It reflects general aspects of Australian law and HR requirements as of its publication date, and may not apply to specific circumstances or subsequent legislative changes. Readers are strongly encouraged to seek advice from a duly qualified and registered legal or HR professional regarding their specific situation. Use of this information is at the reader's own risk, and the authors and MacKillop Family Services Limited disclaim (to the maximum extent permitted by law) all liability for any loss or damage resulting from its use.