- Having a safe and healthy workplace is important for your wellbeing.
- How you sit, stand or move at work — and what type of work you do — can influence your health.
- Your workplace can impact your mental health, for example by causing stress. This can lead to mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
- Your employer has a legal responsibility to keep your workplace safe by providing training and safety equipment.
What is ‘workplace health’?
Australians spend, on average, about one-third of their time working. Having a safe and healthy workspace is an important part of looking after your physical and mental health.
Learning how to work safely and maintain a proper work environment can help prevent injury and illness, help you stay healthy and improve your wellbeing.
How can your workplace affect your mental health?
An unhealthy workplace can cause stress. Sometimes a little bit of stress can be a good thing, since it can push you to complete tasks and help you to reach your work goals. Seeing how much progress you’ve made can be really fulfilling.
If there’s no stress at all at work, you may start to feel bored or unmotivated, which can contribute to mental illness.
However, too much stress is detrimental. This can increase your risk of developing depression or anxiety, especially if you’re prone to these conditions. Excessive stress can also worsen an existing mental health condition.
Stress can also lead to 'burnout', making a person feel emotionally exhausted and preventing them from performing well at work.
Bullying or sexual harassment at work can cause intense stress and negatively impact your mental health.
On the other hand, working in a supportive setting that helps balance your work and your personal life can help you feel happier, healthier and even more productive.
How can your workplace affect your physical health?
Your workplace can also affect your physical health. For example, almost half of all people who work in an office experience neck pain at least once a year. Back and arm pain are also common injuries in people who work in an office environment.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a long-term (chronic) medical condition that is a result of repeating the same action frequently over a long time and can occur in almost any workplace.
Sitting a lot at work can also impact your long-term health, such as while driving, operating a crane or at a desk. This can lead to diabetes, heart disease or obesity. Standing for long periods is associated with fatigue, back problems, varicose veins and heart disease.
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Some work conditions are more dangerous than others, such as those that require you to work with hazardous substances or on construction sites. Your chance of getting injured may be higher in these settings if the risks are not correctly managed and if an emergency plan isn’t in place.
If you don’t have a physical job, it can be hard to find time to exercise, especially if you work long hours. Using your lunch break to work out or exercising during your commute — for example, cycling to work or getting off the bus a stop earlier — can help you fit exercise into your routine. Some workplaces provide exercise facilities or encourage staff to have their meetings while walking around.
Most people have at least one meal during their working day, so try to make this meal as healthy as it can be. Taking control of what you eat at work can be difficult if your options for preparing or reheating food at work are limited. Planning ahead and bringing food into work can help you manage your diet, as well as save time and money on going out for lunch.
How do I stay COVID-safe at work?
COVID-19 guidelines change often. If you are not sure about current workplace rules, you can find up-to-date information on the Safe Work Australia website.
Cleaning your hands frequently with soap or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser will help prevent the spread of infection, as will maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres between you and your co-workers.
In some workplaces, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves can be useful in preventing infection.
What are my rights at work?
You have the right to a safe environment, as well as training on how to work safely.
Any machinery or equipment you use as part of your job should be properly maintained and any necessary safety equipment must be provided by your employer.
Your workplace is required by law to teach you how to use any equipment you need to do your job safely. This can include how to lift and carry heavy loads or how to sit at an office desk without straining your muscles and joints.
If you’re not sure how to stay safe in your workplace, or you are concerned that your work environment is causing you to develop an illness, you can discuss this concern with your employer. They have a legal obligation to listen to your concerns, provide training and make any changes necessary.
If you become injured at work, you have a right to workers’ compensation.
Your employer can’t discriminate against you because of your health status, and they are required by Australian law to make reasonable adjustments for you if needed.
Your workplace may require COVID-19 vaccinations, but they must first ensure that the vaccination is available to all workers and discuss the new requirement with workers.
Your right to a safe working environment includes not experiencing working conditions that could contribute to mental illness or make an existing mental health condition worse.
How can I improve my workplace health?
You can improve your workplace health by being more active, eating healthily, using all safety equipment as instructed, and following all health and safety rules.
How you can improve your health will depend on your job and the support your workplace provides, but here are some ideas:
- Start a lunchtime walking or running group with your co-workers.
- Conduct meetings while standing up or taking a walk together. Standing desks, notebooks, clip boards or tablets can allow you to write notes without sitting down.
- Suggest that healthy food be offered at work gatherings or in the break room. This could include fruit, vegetables, and sandwiches made from wholegrain bread packed with healthy ingredients.
- Form a sporting team with your co-workers and sign up for local leagues or tournaments. This is a great way to be active while forming meaningful relationships with people at work.
- Discourage smoking at work and share quit smoking resources with colleagues.
Where can I find support and information?
- LiveLighter provides information on creating healthy workspaces. It also offers practical tips on changes you can make to immediately improve your health at work.
- Safe Work Australia is a government-funded workplace health and safety service. Safe Work explains how risks in different types of workplace must be managed according to the law. It also provides up-to-date information about workers’ compensation for injuries that have happened during work.
- The Fair Work Ombudsman provides information about workers’ right to a fair and safe workplace, including being free of bullying and harassment. If you prefer to read in a language other than English, the website is available in more than 20 languages.
- The Australian Human Rights Commission has created a handbook for workers with mental illness and their employers. It includes suggestions on how to have a conversation about mental illness at work and how managers can make reasonable accommodations for employees with mental illness.
- The Black Dog Institute provides resources on mental health in the workplace and how to create a healthy, positive work environment. Its website includes tips and useful links for people who are concerned that they may be developing a mental health condition.
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Last reviewed: June 2022