Staff participation: A vital ingredient for mitigating psychosocial hazards

Professor Michelle Tuckey
April 5, 2023

I’ve known for a long time, in theory, that staff participation is a fundamental ingredient for realising successful change within complex organisational systems.

By way of example, a recent systematic review of the international evidence found that the greatest potential for positive effects lies in participatory approaches that emphasise the change process itself, empowering workers to identify and enact workplace changes.

In contrast, management-driven changes towards increased quality or productivity without the opportunity for meaningful staff involvement are likely to fail or, worse, harm staff mental health and well-being.

The power of co-design

What I didn’t expect, heading deep into a line of intervention research, was that my biggest learnings would come from seeing firsthand the power of co-design to drive effective changes in how work is designed, coordinated, and managed. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen how participatory co-design functions as the central mechanism underlying the effects of organisational interventions, bringing forward the positive outcomes.

The legal requirement for consultation

In Australia’s work health and safety legislation, this idea is reflected in the requirement for consultation. The Model Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work, for example, is very clear about the need to “consult with workers when assessing risks or making decisions about the psychosocial risks to health and safety including what control measures are implemented.”

Beyond the legal requirement, consultation with staff makes a lot of sense. The people who are most likely to be injured at work have keen insights into where the prominent risks lie, and useful ideas about how working structures and practices can be changed to reduce risk. At the most basic level, involving workers in the risk management of psychosocial hazards means that a better understanding of the root causes can be developed, and better risk control measures can be implemented.

Meaningful participation needs to be a fundamental part of any approach to mitigating workplace psychosocial hazards.  

Going into my intervention research, I knew that targeting the systemic causes of bullying would open the door to effective prevention. Since then, while supporting change in over 85 worksites, I’ve learnt that over-and-above generating better solutions, meaningful participation works as an ‘intervention’ in its own right.

What the scholarly literature says

This view is affirmed in the scholarly literature, which demonstrates that participation:

  • Utilises the deep knowledge and expertise of staff to make the most effective improvements to work design, organisation, and management;
  • Optimises the fit of solutions to specific organisations and teams, grounded in the reality of people’s everyday working environments;
  • Smooths the change process by building ownership of the changes right across the organisation and fostering collaboration between staff, managers, and leaders;
  • Builds individual resources such as self-efficacy, resilience, hope, and optimism; and
  • Builds organisational resources through collaborative decision making, such as collective sensemaking, job control, skill utilisation, job crafting, and work engagement.

The magic of staff participation

But the research record doesn’t capture the magic I’ve witnessed while facilitating participatory co-design processes.

Like when:

  • A supermarket manager reports back that team members from different departments “had each other’s backs” through the COVID-19 panic buying episodes in a way they had never done before;
  • A youth justice worker cries at the end of a workshop because the general manager called out her idea as one to implement starting the very next day;
  • Administrative staff say the co-design session has been the “best development session we’ve ever done” and wish they had another half-day to collaborate on their solutions; and
  • Prison officers shake my hand at the end of a workshop because the challenges in their work environment have been identified and understood, and they feel safe enough to believe that things can change.

That’s why co-design is at the heart of the Healthy Workplaces by Design program I’ve developed through my research. My research-based knowledge and expertise paves the way for a fundamental shift in how systemic problems like bullying can be solved, and the participatory aspects of the program offer a tried and tested way to deliver on this promise. For organisations that are ready for enduring change, this program is ready for you - get in touch.

About the author:

Professor Michelle Tuckey is Australia’s leading researcher in workplace bullying, recognised as a global leader in her field. A Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at the University of South Australia, she is extensively published regarding psychosocial hazards in the workplace, and is currently serving as Associate Editor of the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. She provides regular keynote addresses to national and international conferences and forums, challenging the orthodox framing and approaches to addressing bullying and harassment.

She featured in ABC’s podcast This Working Life to build broader understanding of these challenges in the Australian setting. The Healthy Workplaces by Design program is the result of over 10 years of Professor Tuckey’s research and applied risk management, which has been successfully delivered in settings as diverse as hospitals, retail, corrections, and in several government agencies to reduce workplace bullying and sexual harassment complaints, lower job demands, build job resources, and increase job satisfaction and work engagement. Professor Tuckey provided over twenty years’ service to the South Australian Country Fire Service, both as an active firefighter and as a frontline mental health supporter assisting with trauma prevention at some of Australia’s largest and most destructive fire events.

She is now partnering with Teamgage to bring this program to workplaces at greater scale, and achieve a deep and lasting positive impact on the working lives of participants.

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