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What does it mean to Prevent Harm?

Prevent Harm is one of three pillars in the Thrive at Work Framework and an important contributor to creating a workplace in which employees can thrive.

The Prevent Harm pillar has three building blocks that work together to mitigate harm and protect employees against psychosocial risk. They are:

  • Increase Job Resources,
  • Reduce Job Demands, and
  • Increase Resilience and Coping.

Research show us that all employees can be exposed to risks to their mental health at work. In fact, unlike physical hazards (e.g. exposure to asbestos), which are only present for specific groups of working individuals, mental health risks exist in every industry and job.1

Australian legislation requires that all workplaces take active steps to protect employee mental health, just as they would manage risks to physical health.

Prevent Harm pillar table showing building blocks, and key strategies.

Why is it important to Prevent Harm?

Research consistently finds that factors associated with work and the work environment can significantly increase the likelihood of employees developing physical and mental health conditions, including musculoskeletal conditions, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.2

The key to reducing the effects of work-related stress is to understand and control for the types of organisational stressors or risk factors that might lead workers to experience stress and sustain psychological and/or physical ill-health. Common organisational stressors include:

  • low or high work demands;
  • low control;
  • low task variety;
  • low task significance;
  • poor support;
  • lack of role clarity;
  • poorly managed relationships;
  • low levels of recognition and reward;
  • poorly managed change; and
  • organisational injustice.

The mental health outcomes associated with uncontrolled risk factors contribute to decreases in organisational performance. Outcomes include:

  • increased absenteeism rates; 3
  • reduced productivity and performance; 4
  • higher turnover rates and associated costs; and 5
  • increased workers compensation rates attributable to work stress.6

The building blocks in the Prevent Harm pillar enable organisations to take proactive, preventative measures to either reduce or remove risk factors, and thereby reduce the potential for harm.

Fact

46% of Australians working in a workplace they consider mentally unhealthy have taken time off from work in the past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy.7

Increase Job Resources

Job resources are aspects of work that help people to meet their work goals and, as such, are positive for workers’ mental health.8 Job resources can also buffer the damaging effects of high job demands, thereby making the demands less stressful.

Increasing job resources is a type of work redesign. Work redesign means changing employees’ tasks, responsibilities, and interactions with people within their job.9 Good work design that balances an employee’s job resources and demands addresses organisational stressors and therefore protects against psychological harm.10

The SMART Work Design model, developed by Professor Sharon Parker at the Future of Work Institute is a useful model that employees and employers can refer to when designing meaningful and motivating work. Based on decades of research, the SMART Work Design model identifies five key job characteristics that result in positive outcomes across jobs and industries. The characteristics for SMART work are: Stimulating, Mastery, Agency, Relational, and Tolerable demands.

There are many job resources that can be considered. The SMART work design model identities four key types of job resources:

  • Stimulating job resources – stimulating job resources include having task variety and meaning in the job.
  • Mastery job resources – mastery job resources include workers having role clarity, and receiving feedback, including getting appropriate reward and recognition in their work.
  • Agency job resources – agency job resources include job control and participation in decision-making.
  • Relational job resources – relational job resources are about having positive work relationships and having high levels of supervisor and co-worker support.

Tolerable demands are addressed within the Reduce Job Demands building block.

Resource

Read more about the SMART work design model. 

Reduce Job Demands

Job demands are aspects of work that require effort. In excess, or when there are insufficient buffering job resources, job demands can cause stress and discomfort.11 Organisations can actively demonstrate their legal compliance through work design that removes, reduces, or manages excessive and harmful job demands in the workplace.12

In the SMART model of work design, the T stands for “Tolerable” demands. This recognises that every individual has different levels of tolerance to demands in the workplace, and stress can occur when the amount of work demands exceeds a person’s capacity to cope. Therefore, when evaluating the level of demands, it is important to take into account not only the demands but the person.13

There are a number of job demands that organisations should manage to ensure they are tolerable. These can include:

  • time demands – inadequate time or resources available to complete allocated work, or long working hours;
  • cognitive demands – tasks that are mentally demanding due to long periods of high concentration and difficult decision making, or are boring and repetitive;
  • emotional demands – work that is emotionally challenging, due to high emotional involvement, or having to regularly disguise emotion at work;
  • physical demands – tasks or a physical environment at work that negatively impacts health;
  • demands associated with organisational change – poor consultation, communication and implementation of change; and
  • demands caused by a lack of organisational justice – processes, procedures, decisions and interactions that lack transparency and are inconsistently handled.

Fact

Research indicates that individuals reporting high levels of job demands are 30-35% more likely to develop mental ill-health.14

Increase resilience and coping

Effectively preventing harm requires organisations to support employees at both an organisational and individual level. By increasing individual resilience and coping, organisations can build employees’ ability to cope with, adapt to and recover from stress at work.15

Research suggests that people have differing capacities to manage and recover from stress.16

Key strategies to address resilience and coping include:

  • build individuals’ resilience – increase the ability of employees to cope with and adapt to change and to effectively deal with challenges when they arise; and
  • support employees’ ability to recover from stress – provide opportunities to recover from stress that occurs at work.

Fact

Research indicates that open and realistic communication can contribute to reducing psychological stress, uncertainty and absenteeism.17

References

  1. LaMontage, A. D., Keegel, T., Vallance, D., Ostry, A., & Wolfe, R. (2008). Job strain – Attributable depression in a smale of working Australians: Assessing the contribution to health inequalities. BMC Public Health, 8(181), 1-9.
  2. Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Van Rhenen, W. (2009). How changes in job demands and resources predict burnout, work engagement, and sickness absenteeism. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(7), 893-917.
  3. Parker, S. K. (2014). Beyond motivation: Job and work design for development, health, ambidexterity, and more. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 661-691.
  4. Parker, S. K., Jackson, P. R., Sprigg, C.A., and Whybrow, A.C. (1998) Organizational interventions to reduce the impact of poor work design. HSE Books: Norwich, UK.
  5. Teuchmann, K., Totterdell, P., and Parker, S. K. (1999). Rushed, unhappy, drained: An experience sampling study of relations between time pressure, mood and emotional exhaustion in a group of accountants. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 4(1), 37-54.
  6. Parker, S.K., Van den Broeck, A., & Holman, D. (2017). Work design influences: A synthesis of multi-level factors that affect the design of jobs. Academy of Management Annals, 11 (1), 267-308.
  7. Vanhove, A. J., Herian, M. N., Perez, A. L. U., Harms, P. D., Lester, P. B. (2016). Can resilience be developed at work? A meta-analytic review of resilience-building programme effectiveness. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 89, 278-307.
  8. Sonnentag, S., Binnewies, C., & Mojza, E. J. (2010). Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role of psychological detachment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 965-976.
  9. Swchweiger, D.M. & Denisi, A.S. (1991). Communication with employees following a merger: A longitudinal field experiment. Academy of Management Journal, 34, 110-135.
Next step

Increase Job Resources

Job resources can buffer employees against the potentially damaging effects of excess work demands and protect employees from harm.