A new code to deal with workplace burnout

23 May, 2023

A new code means employers need to protect workers’ mental health. But will it work?

Dr. Hannah Szewczyk, Chair of the Australian Medical Association’s Council of Doctors in Training, acknowledges that workplace burnout is a common issue in the healthcare profession. It has been particularly highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Long working hours, lack of value and recognition, high stress levels, and the risk of moral injury contribute to burnout among doctors and junior medical professionals. 

A recent study revealed that one in ten healthcare workers experienced thoughts of suicide or self-harm during the pandemic’s second wave.

However, the healthcare sector is not the only industry facing mental health risks in the workplace. Teacher shortages have led to burnout in education, while the hospitality industry also struggles with unhealthy workplace expectations. To address these issues, some employers are considering initiatives such as implementing a four-day workweek or providing more flexibility and job security.

Fortunately, a solution has emerged in the form of updated work health and safety (WHS) regulations introduced by government agency Safe Work Australia. These regulations focus on managing psychological risks, also known as psychosocial hazards, in the workplace. Safe Work Australia has released a new code of practice that identifies potential psychosocial hazards, including job demands, flexibility, autonomy, workplace interactions, and the physical environment. Several Australian jurisdictions have already adopted these regulations, while others are planning to implement them soon.

Dr. Szewczyk welcomes the introduction of the code, hoping that it will improve doctors’ well-being and lead to increased retention.

“It’s really, really overdue, so I’m glad to see this. I’m hoping that if we can improve the wellbeing of these doctors through this code, that there’ll be more retention,” Dr Szewczyk says.

Employment and industrial law barrister Ian Neil SC emphasizes that this code of practice demonstrates the recognition that work environments can generate risks to employees’ psychological health. 

“[This code of practice is] regarded essentially as evidence of what is known about a hazard or a risk – or risk assessment or risk control. And a demonstration of what’s reasonably practicable to address those hazards and risks,” he says.

Mental health hazards will now be treated as seriously as physical hazards in the workplace, and employers will have an obligation to address them.

Stress Response

Research has shown that work-related mental health hazards, such as stress and burnout, can have detrimental effects on employees’ well-being and physical health.

“Prolonged severe presence of these hazards creates stress. That stress can have both cardiovascular and musculoskeletal [impacts], so having pains in your neck bones, joints. And having blood pressure and cardiological issues comes from extensively long chronic stress,” Dr Ruchi Sinha, Associate professor of organisational behaviour at the University of South Australia.

“Similarly, your feeling of exhaustion, burnout, anxiety, depression: These are psychological reactions to stress.”

Creating a positive work environment, fostering trust and mutual respect among colleagues, and addressing issues like job clarity and organisation can help mitigate these risks.

How does the new code work to help eliminate workplace burnout?

While the benefits of this new code are clear, there are questions about how it will be implemented and how employees will respond to it.

Neil predicts that regulatory authorities will “give real attention to these kinds of injuries” thanks to the new code of practice.

“All jurisdictions, Commonwealth and State, have inspectorates whose purpose is to investigate and take steps to ensure compliance with work health and safety legislation and obligations under that legislation.”

Workplaces will also be obliged to report on any potential risks.

It is however noted that factors such as gender and the stigma of mental illness may somewhat prevent employees from seeking help. 

“Climate is what determines what is acceptable and unacceptable at the workplace. And now making psychological harm unacceptable is where the opportunity lies,” says Dr Ruchi Sinha.

In conclusion

In conclusion, the updated WHS regulations and the new code of practice from Safe Work Australia provide an opportunity to address psychological risks in the workplace and improve employees’ well-being. By taking mental health hazards seriously, organisations can create positive work environments and foster better psychological health among their workforce.