5 Causes of Psychological Injury in the Workplace and How to Avoid Them

Cultural Change & Change Management

Employee suffering from psychological injury

Psychological injuries are a growing concern for employers. Providing a healthy workplace that keeps stress to a minimum should be the aim of all organisations. Being aware of the causes of psychological injury is the first step to avoiding them. The cost of psychological injuries can be high both with lost time & productivity and the risk of workers compensation claims. In Australia the laws are complex, but many psychological illnesses could be covered by WorkCover if the injuries were caused at work.


What Does Psychological Injury Mean?

Psychological injury is a cognitive or emotional symptom that impacts on a person’s life, affecting how they think, feel and behave. Also known as mental injury, psychological injuries includes depression, post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.                           

Workplace psychological injury can be caused by environmental, organisational and individual factors. The environment includes unsafe noise levels, equipment, and accidents.

Organisational causes include poor levels of support from superiors, constant change and high levels of stress. Individual factors relate to personality and past experiences which make a person more or less likely to suffer a psychological injury. Research has shown that poor psychological safety costs Australian businesses $6 billion dollars each year.

What is a Secondary Psychological Injury?

A secondary psychological injury is a mental injury caused by another (primary) injury. After suffering a physical injury, an employee can develop secondary problems such as depression, sadness, anger, poor sleep and lower levels of drive and engagement. This psychological damage can be made worse by ongoing pain, medication and isolation from friends & colleagues.

5 Examples of Psychological Injury & Their Causes

Below are 5 common causes of work-related stress that contribute to psychological injuries in workers.

#1 Job Insecurity

The threat of organisational restructures, mergers and redundancies can take its toll on employees emotionally and physically.One study showed that chronic job insecurity is a stronger predictor of poor health than smoking or hypertension because of stress. A growing portion of the workforce is employed on a casual or contract basis with the constant threat of being laid off without warning or compensation.

Some people worry about how to find another job or pay the mortgage if their contract is cancelled. They may wonder what their manager thinks of their work and if the business planning to keep them on long-term. This can go on for years with the continual stress taking a heavy psychological toll.

Contractors could be less likely to seek professional psychiatric or psychological help than full-time employees - they probably may not have the same access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Some feel they can’t afford to take time off work because they don’t have paid leave entitlements.

Everyone has a different mindset and job insecurity doesn’t necessarily pose a psychological injury risk to many workers. Some people are happy to trade off job security for the other benefits of casual work like higher hourly pay and penalty rates. They are confident they will find another job and won’t suffer financially if their current job finishes.

How to Avoid – If you are someone who struggles with job insecurity, find employment that offers more security than your current role. While there is no such thing as a job for life, full time employment may be a better fit for you than casual work.

#2 Work Overload

When economic times are tight, staff are asked to do more. When people leave the organisation or take holidays they aren’t replaced, leaving everyone else to pick up the slack. The extra work can cause work-related stress which could cause poor performance, depression, anxiety and problems sleeping.

Some companies set impossibly high targets, causing staff to stress about their individual performance and feel inadequate. The stress and frantic pace can make people feel like their life is dominated by a level of occupational stress that makes it hard to to switch off and unwind after work.

How to Avoid – If you aren’t coping with the volume of work expected of you to the point that it is causing psychological problems, voice your concerns with a manager or ask a colleague to take on a task you don’t have time for.

#3 Bullying and Harassment

Adults in the workforce are just as susceptible to bullying as kids in the schoolyard. Workplace bullying can be verbal, physical, social or psychological. Bullying can take the form of hurtful comments, exclusion, sexual harassment, playing mind games, giving you pointless tasks, initiations, threats, pushing, shoving and tripping. The bully can be a manager, a colleague or group of people and can happen in any type of workplace.

Bullying can cause psychological injuries and make people stressed, anxious and depressed, dread going to work, lack confidence and not find any happiness in their work.

For employers, compensation claims for psychological injuries caused by workplace bullying can be costly. Earlier this year a QLD mine worker who was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, anxiety social phobia caused by alleged bullying at work was awarded “substantial” damages after a court battle with his former employer.

How to Avoid – All employers are required to provide a safe workplace free of bullying and harassment. You should report incidents where you feel threatened or intimidated so your employer can take action.

#4 Dealing with Difficult Customers

Employees who have to deal with difficult customers can feel stressed even when the situation has been resolved and the angry customer has left. A worker’s ongoing reaction to the incident can be far more damaging than the incident itself. People can feel fear and stress because they weren’t able to fix the problem and couldn’t calm the customer. They worry about how they will handle the next situation.

Like job insecurity, what causes one worker significant stress, can be an enjoyable part of the job for another. Not every worker finds difficult customers a source of stress.

Some employees can accept they can’t fix every situation. They understand that they do their best at work and an angry customer is quickly forgotten. They focus on the positive interactions they have with customers. What might be psychologically damaging to one worker may be of no consequence to another.

How to Avoid – If dealing with angry or difficult customers makes you feel stressed and nervous, ask your employer for training on how to handle them. Having the knowledge and practicing how you deal with these situations can give you the confidence you need to handle the next incident.

#5 Shift Work

The physical impact of night and shift work has been studied for many years. After-hours work is recognised as causing a range of health issues from cancer to fatigue. The psychological impact of shift work has been the focus of studies in more recent years and the findings show the psychological harm can be just as bad as the physical health effects.

Disruptions to shift workers’ circadian rhythm results in higher levels of stress and dissatisfaction. A British study of nurses showed a connection between shift work and low job satisfaction. Nurses who worked night shifts reported lower levels of satisfaction due to physical and psychological symptoms of stress.

The stress of shift work can be increased by the pressure of missing family responsibilities and missing out on socials events.

How to Avoid – If shift work is making you feel stressed, talk to your manager and ask if you can reduce the number of night shifts you work or consider changing jobs to one that doesn’t require as much shift work.

Psychological injuries often take longer for workers to return to work from compared to physical injuries. Early intervention is important when handling mental health problems. Conflict resolution and alternative employment are two solutions for reducing the risk of a prolonged psychological injury.


If you think your organisation could benefit from a cultural change, or a psychological risk assessment, call PeopleSense by Altius on 1300 307 912 or (08) 9388 9000, or contact us online.