Protecting your frontline workers from psychosocial harm


A recent report has highlighted a largely overlooked aspect of the labour shortages impacting industries such as healthcare, retail and hospitality - an increase in ‘psychosocial harm’.

The term is associated with any hazard that could cause psychological harm (e.g. harm someone's mental health). Common psychosocial hazards at work include excessive job demands, low job control, remote or isolated work, and poor support. However, top of the list of hazards is bullying and harassment.

The report by the NSW government’s Centre for Work Health & Safety found that 61% of surveyed workers experienced bullying in the workplace over the past year, including 28% who said they suffer from it at least every month.

A majority of those who experienced harassment said it was verbal (63%), while more than half (52%) said it was psychological, such as getting impossible demands and unreasonable deadlines. Other forms of harassment cited include:

·       Discrimination (26%)

·       Sexual (25%)

·       Physical (20%)

Almost two-thirds of respondents said they felt drained by their work, while 16% said they were working in roles considered to be of poor psychosocial quality. The findings were underpinned by what the report called the “increasing normalisation of chronic understaffing”, as well as limited action taken against bullying or harassment in workplaces.

The problem was found to be most acute in healthcare, where workers felt “more exposed” to hazards, including harassment, sexual harassment, and bullying, than employees from other industries. However, frontline workers in other sectors are vulnerable.

It’s a similar story in other parts of the world. For example, 58% of surveyed hospitality workers in New Zealand reported that they had experienced verbal abuse on the job. Just under half (49%) reported they had either witnessed or experienced bullying at work from either a manager, co-workers, or customers.

In addition, 68% of surveyed hospitality workers in the UK reported experiencing poor mental health, a significantly higher rate than the national average of 25%. Some 40% of respondents had considered leaving the industry due to the impact of poor mental health on their lives.

The fallout – and what employers can do to ease psychosocial harm

Psychosocial injuries can include depression, anxiety and, over a prolonged period, burn out. These conditions usually require a more extended period of recovery and higher costs than physical injuries. These injuries can result in higher employee turnover, increased disengagement, more absenteeism, and more workers’ compensation claims.

Whatever the source of psychosocial harm – be it customers, managers, peers, or simply the working conditions (including understaffing, poor rostering, or toxic managers) – it’s every employer’s duty of care to provide a safe working environment, and to abide by relevant health and safety laws and regulations.

How can employers ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees is maintained? Here are 5 tips to consider:

1.     Identify psychosocial hazards

HR and senior leadership teams can be based far from the frontline and may struggle to provide the support required. It’s therefore critical to listen to employees about their experiences on the job. Warning signs to look out for might include comments to managers or shared via surveys along the lines of: “This place is toxic”, “I am burnt out”, and “I feel like a failure – how am I supposed to do all of this?”.

Employers can also observe how workers interact with each other, regularly inspect the workplace, review incident reports and records, and use regular employee surveys to gather relevant information.

2.     Make safety requirements easier to understand

The NSW government report suggested that improvements can only be made if safety requirements are easier to understand, or if the financial or reputational benefits were more demonstrable for organisations. If a premium is placed on these elements, workplace health and safety can be re-prioritised.

That relies on clarifying internal organisational policies and ensuring all stakeholders appreciate and understand that worker health and safety is a key priority. WHS policies should be readily available, accessible at any time, and available in a number of formats (digital and print). All stakeholders should acknowledge they have read and understood these policies. Training can help reinforce or clarify any policy areas. It also comes down to ensuring government agencies are supporting and guiding employers as much as possible with plain-speaking, relevant support and guidance.

3.     Implement control measures

After recognising the hazards and assessing the related risks, employers should apply appropriate control measures to eliminate or minimise risks.

Where possible, employers should aim to completely eliminate the psychosocial risks in the workplace, as this is always the safest option.


However, if this isn’t possible, try to minimise the risk through planning and prevention. Ideally, every aspect of a risk management plan should involve input from workers and their representatives to ensure better outcomes.


4.     Ensure managers are appropriately trained

Managers play a critical role in spotting warning signs that something is amiss or that employees are struggling. But it’s not enough to simply observe – frontline managers should be familiar with workplace health and safety obligations and be given appropriate training to ensure they can conduct difficult conversations with employees, know where and when to seek assistance, and provide support to employees.

Offering access to an employee assistance program (EAP) can provide a level of support, but managers should also be able to provide contact details for organisations like Lifeline Australia, Lifeline New Zealand, and Mind in the UK.

Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute and SANE also offer services to help struggling workers.

5.     Ensure HR policies are fit for purpose

For HR, it’s vital they have policies in place to ensure people can speak out and use the right channels for grievances or complaints. Appropriate performance management processes also need to be in place to discipline employees responsible for the bullying and harassment of others. Some employers take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying and harassment in the workplace. This approach sends a clear message that such behaviour will not be tolerated and severe consequences, such as termination, will be enforced.

However, it must be understood that removing a person through a zero tolerance policy may not resolve the issue, especially if there is an ingrained workplace culture of bullying. Workplace bullying is not just an individual problem but a systemic cultural problem that impacts an organisation’s norms, values and behaviours.

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,” said 2016 Australian of the Year David Morrison as part of his campaign to champion gender equality in the army. In other words, onlookers and bystanders play a role in either normalising behaviour or calling it out. In the workplace, that means managers and all workers need to feel they can – and should – speak out if they see inappropriate behaviour.


The customer is always right – or are they?
While the above can help matters internally, job roles that deal with members of the general public can’t always be protected from inappropriate behaviour. The problem hit an unfortunate high during the global pandemic, when 59% of frontline retail workers reported an increase in customer abuse.

The philosophy that “the customer is always right” is flawed, especially if customers are verbally or physically abusive or behaving in other inappropriate ways. Employees need to be trained on how to defuse such situations, feel empowered to walk away from these situations, or escalate an issue by making a note on a file or redirecting the interaction to a supervisor. Read some further tips in this article.

How Humanforce can help

Technology can help employers listen to the ‘voice’ of frontline employees, to hear their concerns, their grievances, and their ideas for improvement. Technology also provides tools for workers to effectively connect and communicate with their organisation and their managers. For example:


Connection and engagement: Humanforce’s Employee Engagement solution helps you understand what matters most to your frontline workers. Our solution allows you to customise survey forms, collect feedback, measure and improve engagement at all levels of the business. Encourage continuous feedback and strengthen bonds between employees and managers.


Compliance and qualification management: Our Onboarding & Offboarding solution not only gets new hires up to speed quicker, but it can also help ensure important information is passed onto new hires, including policies and processes relating to workplace health & safety.

In addition, Humanforce’s Compliance Management system keeps all of your employee records accurate and up to date. Get notified of renewal dates before it's too late and avoid having to chase employees for certifications, licences, immunisation and visa details. Be audit-ready – have all compliance requirements up to date, stored digitally in one place, and stay on top of CPD requirements – including health and safety updates – with training and qualification monitoring.

About Humanforce

Humanforce is the best-in-one platform for frontline and flexible workforces, offering a truly employee centred, intelligent and compliant human capital management (HCM) suite – without compromise. Founded in 2002, Humanforce has a 2300+ customer base and over half a million users worldwide. Today, we have offices across Australia, New Zealand, and the UK.


Our vision is to make work easier and life better by focusing on the needs and fulfilment of frontline workers, and the efficiency and optimisation of businesses.


Contact us for more information about how Humanforce can automate and simplify all aspects of people management in your organisation.