AMSJ » Psychologically safe

Psychologically safe

[hr]The Australian workplace has hit a tipping point: the escalating business costs of ignoring psychosocial risks are becoming too great, according to organisational psychologist, Dr Jane Austin.

In this edition’s feature interview, Dr Austin tells the Australasian Mine Safety Journal that the productivity benefits of a psychologically safe and healthy workplace are now identifiable and clearer to promote.[hr]

Why should Australia’s mining sector be concerned about creating psychologically safe and healthy workplaces?

With Australian businesses losing $14.81 billion each year1 to psychological health issues, businesses can no longer afford to be ignorant or reactive toward the risks and legislative requirements. For the mining industry alone it has been estimated that poor mental health will cost between $320 million to $400 million per year or around $300,000 to $400,000 for an average mine of 170 staff.2

Promoting mentally healthy workplaces – to the point of flourishing high performance – is being globally recognised and now actively encouraged. In the last couple of years Australia’s business leaders have been coming together to take action based upon the emerging evidence. For example, the NSW Minerals Council recently released a Blueprint for Mental Health and Wellbeing, a high level guide to address mental health in the state’s mining sector.3 A recent Price Waterhouse Coopers report demonstrated that Australian businesses will receive an average return of $2.30 for every $1 they invest in effective workplace mental health strategies.4

How would you define a psychologically safe and healthy workplace?
Psychologically safe and healthy workplaces are visible via a continuum. On one end, there are the unhealthy workplaces characterised by high levels of absenteeism, turnover, incivility, psychological injury and wastage as well as low levels of productivity, worker satisfaction and engagement. In the middle, there are psychologically safe and healthy workplaces with higher levels of respect, engagement, robust communication, good job fit and productivity. These are places where employees are engaged with their work and feel both physical and psychosocial safety. When all these conditions are met there are flourishing workplaces with high levels of sustainable productivity, performance, engagement and discretionary effort.

Why is workplace wellness so important for the mining sector?
The psychosocial hazards of work in the mining sector are a combination of common and unique stressors. In particular workers are likely to be impacted by extended rosters, shift work, fly-in fly- out arrangements, and living in remote camp locations along with increasing work pressure around productivity and uncertainty related to well-known boom and bust cycles. The male-dominated culture of the mining sector also results in greater stigma and reduced likelihood of seeking help when a worker becomes psychologically unwell.

The high risk nature of mining work requires workers to be ‘on their game’ in order to stay safe. Negative impacts on mental health from these psychosocial hazards however invariably leads to a reduction in cognitive ability, especially the ability to concentrate and stay focussed. The potential result is increased risk and an increase in safety incidents.

How do we identify psychologically healthy workplaces in the mining sector?
Recent revisions in WHS legislation have made employer and particularly manager/ supervisor responsibilities for protecting employees against psychosocial risks ever more explicit. Nevertheless, given the escalating costs of psychological injuries employers can no longer take a reactive approach. Building upon an ever- increasing evidence base, workplaces first need to assess their level of organisational health.5 Employers must identify current psychological risk factors, just as they constantly assess their physical environment and health factors. Mining, like every other industry, is now being compelled to incorporate the psychological dimensions and regularly audit and update their best practice policies. Employers taking this path must build the necessary and sufficient conditions for psychological safety and health to be established and then improved.

For the mining sector there is substantial evidence linking a physical safety climate to safety behaviour and performance, particularly in reducing industrial accidents and errors.6 The psychosocial safety climate of any organisation is now being seen as equally important – it can predict both the positive aspects of employee engagement, such as productivity, and the negative aspects of the modern workplace, such as bullying/harassment and psychological health problems.7 Psychological health hazards and risks must first be identified and addressed before any growth rewards and productivity incentives can be fully utilised and truly realised.

How can an organisation build resilience beyond identifying psychological health risk factors?
The problem with traditional approaches to psychosocial health hazards is that the vast majority of them are reactive and increasing in costs – to the corporate insurance premiums, the competitive advantage of the organisation and for the lives of those working in the company. They typically only come into force once a problem is identified and aim to mitigate the existing problem. Businesses who want to protect their employees and business from mental health issues must adopt a preventative if not proactive approach. This means ensuring they have the correct systems, policies, procedures and capabilities in place. Then we can build resilience capabilities across the organisation and enable workers to improve and flourish.

A resilient workforce is one that is equipped to deal with any mental health issue that might affect its employees. Most important for the mining sector, a resilient workforce is able to respond positively to the psychological pressures of social isolation, uncertainty and productivity demands.

At the core of a psychologically healthy workplace, and key to its success, are the individuals that make up the organisation. By proactively investing in their mental health, businesses can protect against litigation and create a more positive work environment for everyone. Only when a workplace is physically and psychologically safe can we expect its teams to navigate the demands of the modern economic climate in a healthy and flexible way.8

“The male-dominated culture of the mining sector also results in greater stigma and reduced likelihood of seeking help when a worker becomes psychologically unwell.”

Dr Jane Austin
Dr Jane-AustinPsychologist
Dr Austin is a registered psychologist with over 18 years experience. Her previous work in the fields of both clinical neuropsychology and organisational psychology assists Dr Austin to provide a broad range of services in her CommuniCorp consulting role. Dr Austin has worked both nationally and internationally with medium to large multinational organisations largely in the mining and energy/utilities industries.


  1. Medbank Private (2008). The Cost of Workplace Stress in Australia. Downloaded 22/08/14.
  4. PwC (2010). Workplace wellness in Australia. Aligning action with aims: Optimising the benefits of workplace wellness. Downloaded 22/08/14
  5. Cotton, P. & Hart, P.M. (2003). Occupational Wellbeing and Performance: a review of organisational health research. Australian Psychologist. Volume 38 (2): 118-127.
  6. Law, R., Dollard, M. F., Tuckey, M. R., & Dormann, C. (2011). Psychosocial safety climate as a lead indicator of workplace bullying and harassment, job resources, psychological health and employee engagement. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 43(5), 1782-1793.
  7. ibid.
  8. Bradley, B. H., Postlethwaite, B. E., Klotz, A. C., Hamdani, M. R., & Brown, K. G. (2012). Reaping the benefits of task conflict in teams: The critical role of team psychological safety climate. Journal of Applied Psychology; Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(1), 151.

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