By Cala Ahmed

We all know that busy or stressful periods in the workplace are inevitable, but what impact does it have when stress is constant and employee wellbeing is jeopardised?

A recent court decision involving Zagi Kozarov and the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) revealed that a large portion of managing an emotionally and psychologically safe workplace is the responsibility of the employer.

We often think that workplace health and safety (WHS) obligations translate to maintaining physically safe spaces, and while this is certainly true, WHS obligations extend to caring for employees’ emotional welfare in conjunction with work expectations, culture, and environment.

This article highlights important factors in the decision of Kozarov’s case, discusses the effects of a psychologically unsafe workplace and offers strategies for how to create healthy workplaces.

What employers can learn from this case

The decision involving Kozarov and the OPP included a number of key points for employers to consider. These include that there are significant occupational health and safety concerns around mental health, and employers should adhere to policies and procedures designed to promote a safe system of work. While there may be a stigma attached to mental health concerns, employers should take a proactive and empathic approach towards employees. This is of particular importance where employees may be in roles that are inherently mentally dangerous.

In the case of lawyer Kozarov, the nature of her job entailed prosecuting serious sex offenders. It was found that the heavy workload and confronting subject matter resulted in psychological injury for Kozarov and ultimately her suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mentally challenging workloads can be both harmful to employees and the business. For example, employees can suffer from burnout, anxiety, disengagement from the workplace and other diagnoseable mental health concerns. As demonstrated in the court’s decision, employers have a duty of care that requires management of all health and safety hazards and risks. For the employer, getting this wrong can mean a poor reputation, lacking business performance and costly claims, penalties and premiums.

So, what can you do to ensure you are promoting a safe and supportive workplace?

We recommend that employers take an organisational-level approach to fostering employee wellbeing and improving the overall performance of your business. This may include:

  • Encouraging employees to take regular breaks throughout the workday to mentally disengage and rest from challenging tasks. This will work to improve overall focus and performance outcomes.
  • Ensure that employees can set clear boundaries around their time outside of work. Taking the mental workload home and feeling as though there is a need to work at all hours, including engaging with emails or phone calls blurs the line between personal time and work time, because rest time is essential for recuperation.
  • Finally, giving employees the opportunity to discuss their work-related stresses or workloads either through informal debriefs or through structured counselling can prove to be effective in manage workplace stress.

Ensuring a physically and psychologically safe workplace is not only beneficial to a business and its employees, it’s also a legal requirement.

We understand that achieving compliant WHS standards can be challenging, so we recommend engaging with the HR Assured’s 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service team for comprehensive WHS assessment, guidance, and support.

Contact HR Assured’s 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.

Cala Ahmed is a Workplace Relations Consultant and assists a variety of clients with employee relations and compliance matters. She is currently studying for a Bachelor of Business/ Law.