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Mental health and wellbeing: Psychosocial Safety Climate

Most Australian Public Service (APS) employees come to work with the expectation that their employer will safeguard their physical and psychological health.

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act), managers must take reasonable measures to identify and control exposure to physical and psychological risks.

Workplaces with a safe psychosocial environment experience lower levels of unscheduled absence and greater employee engagement.

It is therefore important that we monitor the safety of APS workplaces. This is critical for maintaining the wellbeing of individual employees, and also for ensuring APS workplaces are as productive and high performing as possible.

In 2015, the APS employee census introduced a measure of Psychosocial Safety Climate (PSC)¹. PSC is broader than just safety practices and focuses on four areas:

  • Management commitment to employees’ psychological health
  • How management prioritises health and wellbeing issues
  • Agency communication regarding health and wellbeing issues
  • Employee participation in shaping the policy and practices of the workplace

PSC is primarily driven by senior leaders and results vary across agencies.

An agency with a positive PSC places a priority on the health and wellbeing of its employees. It is a workplace where managers are quick to correct problems or issues that affect employees’ psychological health. Employees are also active participants in monitoring risks and shaping the workplace.

Conversely, an agency with poor PSC is likely to have:

  • Higher levels of unscheduled absence
  • Lower employee engagement
  • Lower levels of commitment to the organisation

Agencies with a high PSC have an average unscheduled absence rate of almost 2 days lower than the overall APS average.

When compared to agencies with low PSC the difference is considerable. On average, agencies with high PSC have unscheduled absence rates that are 6 days lower than agencies with low PSC. This is very likely to translate to a more productive agency given the greater availability of engaged employees.

PSC and unscheduled absence in the APS, 2014-15

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 1.

Low PSC is also linked to higher levels of presenteeism. Presenteeism is where workers show up when they are unwell, are unproductive and disrupt other workers around them.

In an agency with low PSC, employees take more sick leave, are more likely to attend work while unwell and be less productive while at work.²

Where agencies have a positive PSC, employees show consistently higher engagement levels.

APSC research shows that where engagement levels are higher, employees:

  • Rate their own performance more positively
  • Take fewer days of unscheduled absence
  • Are less likely to intend to leave their agency in the next 12 months
  • Are more likely to display citizenship behaviours such as making suggestions to improve the work environment and how work is carried out
  • Are more willing to invest extra time and effort into ensuring work tasks are completed

PSC and employee engagement, 2016

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 2.

APS agencies have pragmatic business reasons to focus on PSC, in addition to their legal obligations under the WHS Act 2011.

PSC is strongly associated with employee engagement and productivity. The focus therefore should be on improving PSC over time. Comparing results from the 2015 and 2016 employee censuses suggest that more work is needed in this space as there has been very little difference in reported PSC over this time period.

PSC score by agency size, 2015-16

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 3.

Improving PSC does not necessarily require a large capital investment.

Agencies wishing to improve their PSC could implement a number of simple strategies:

  • Having senior leaders actively promote mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
  • Incorporating messages in agency-wide communications from the senior leadership that reinforce the importance of employee health and wellbeing, particularly mental health
  • Ensuring a regular and routine flow of information from management to employees about psychological safety risks in the workplace
  • Actively promoting stress prevention at all levels, particularly through middle management/executive level staff

PSC can be improved by simple, low cost strategies which communicate the extent to which agencies value their employees’ wellbeing. These cost-effective, easy interventions may have surprisingly wide impacts on the agency workplace.

¹Bailey, T, Dollard, M, Richards, P 2015, ‘A national standard for psychosocial safety climate: PSC41 as the benchmark for low risk of job strain and depressive symptoms’, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 15–26

²Law, R., Dollard, M.F., Tuckey, M.R & Dormann, C 2011 Psych-social safety climate as a lead indicator of workplace bullying and harassment, job resources, psychological health and employee engagement, Accident Analysis and Prevention

Last reviewed: 
3 July 2018