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Understanding Psychosocial Risks at Work

understanding psychosocial risks at work

Effectively managing health and safety risks in the workplace is about more than avoiding bumps and bruises. It’s also about protecting the psychological well-being of employees.

Once all mental health issues were lumped together under the catch all term ‘workplace stress’, which wasn’t taken as seriously as other workplace hazards. However, it’s now understood by industry experts and governing bodies alike that protecting mental health at work is a must.

Psychological health is the focus of the new standard released by the International Organization for Standardization in June 2021. Where the well-known ISO 45001 aims to look after physical health, ISO 45003 targets mental well-being.

How does one protect the mental health of employees? A key way of doing this is by protecting against what are called psychosocial risks. In the following article, we will explore what these are. And we’ll also look at why psychological health and safety is so important and what benefits it brings to workers and employers alike.

How Our Work Affects Our Mental Health?

If you have ever been stuck in a job that is difficult or that you don’t enjoy, you know it can affect how you think and feel. Moreover, most of us spend the majority of our week at work and doing work.

If this is not something that affects our mental health positively, it can cause us to develop mental problems or exacerbate existing conditions.

The health effects of stress in the workplace are also a leading cause of poor mental health, according to the HSE. Work-related stress can cause both mental and physical health conditions. Stress in the workplace can also aggravate any existing mental problems, such as depression and anxiety.

Looking at society as a whole, the most commonly reported mental health problems are anxiety and depression. Up to 7.8% of people in the UK met the diagnosis criteria for depression and anxiety, as shown by recent figures from the Mental Health Foundation.

Approximately 79% of working adults in the UK experienced work-related stress in 2020, as reported by the HSE.

A Growing Focus

If we weren’t believers before, the Covid-19 pandemic gave us clear examples of why mental health must be a priority. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the pandemic saw increased feelings of isolation, along with and anxiety over general societal instability. People also reported feelings of lockdown depression, loneliness, and distress.

The increasing impact of Covid-19  on mental health was detailed in the Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic report by the Mental Health Foundation.

Fortunately, the pandemic also helped grow awareness of mental health issues in the workplace. Recent statistics show that more employers than ever before are prioritising the mental health of their employees, as shown by the Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021 report commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Addressing Mental Health at Work is Good for Everyone

Maintaining a psychologically safe workplace has a range of benefits. Employers can reduce costs caused by mental health-related absenteeism and employee burnout. Workplaces that focus on the good mental health of their employees are more productive, have better employee engagement, and retain staff for longer.

Placing an emphasis on mental health will also reduce the risk of workplace accidents caused by loss of concentration.

Additionally, a psychologically safe workplace will lessen the likelihood of any legal action being taken by employees, who feel they have been discriminated against or feel that the workplace has caused their mental illness.

What is Psychological Health & Safety?

Psychological health and safety deals with how we think, feel, and behave, as defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). While ‘traditional’ health and safety practices are concerned with physical risks, psychological health and safety focus on the mental health and well-being of workers.

However, it’s vital to understand that workplace mental health issues cannot be addressed in the same way as physical problems. One difference is that they are often hidden. Whereas a physical ailment can be easily seen, a disorder such as depression can be a lot less evident. At the same time, many employees are resistant to requesting help for these types of issues. This may be because of shame or stigma.

What are Psychosocial Risk Factors?

One tool that employers are using to identify and combat workplace mental health issues is through understanding psychosocial risk factors.

Psychosocial risk factors are defined as any issue or condition that may negatively affect a person’s psychological response to their duties at work or their relationships with supervisors or colleagues, according to the HSE.

Examples of psychosocial risk factors include:

  • Excessive workloads
  • Conflicting demands from supervisors
  • Lack of employee influence in the workplace
  • Job insecurity
  • Poorly organised changes to the workplace
  • Inadequate communication
  • Sexual harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Violence or fear of harm

What are the 13 Psychosocial Factors?

There are 13 main psychosocial factors to be aware of in the workplace, as outlined by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). Ensuring that all of these risk factors are properly managed is crucial to creating a safe and healthy working environment.

Although the order of importance can vary, the 13 psychosocial factors are as follows:

Organisational Culture – An organisation should be based on principles of trust, fairness, and honesty.

Psychological and Social Support – Managers and co-workers should be supportive and assist each other in maintaining good mental health.

Clear Leadership and Expectations – Employees should always know what is expected of them, be made aware of any changes in the working environment and know their contribution to the organisation.

Civility and Respect – All employees should treat supervisors, co-workers, customers, clients, and the general public with respect and politeness.

Psychological Demands – Employees should always be competent to meet the demands of their roles.

Growth and Development – There should always be encouragement and opportunities for growth within an organisation.

Recognition and Reward – Employees should be acknowledged and appreciated for their work.

Involvement and Influence – Organisations should ensure that employees can have meaningful input into work processes and major decisions.

Workload Management – All duties should be able to be accomplished within reasonable time frames.

Engagement – Employees need to feel motivated to do their work well and feel connected to their roles.

Balance – Organisations should provide a fair work/life balance for their employees.

Psychological Protection – Workers should feel able to ask questions, give feedback, and report any errors or issues.

Protection of Physical Safety – All employees should be able to go about their duties without the fear of suffering physical harm.

What is a Psychologically Safe Workplace?

A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees do not feel overburdened by their workloads, do not feel intimidated by co-workers, supervisors, or the public, and feel able to freely voice their opinions and concerns regarding the work environment.

The term psychological safety as it relates to the workplace was defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.

Identifying Psychosocial Hazards at Work

Everybody in the workplace must act together to identify and control psychological risks. There are a variety of risks that workers face, but in general psychosocial hazards can be grouped into three categories:

Organisational – Organisational hazards relate to how a workplace is managed and how tasks are carried out. They can include bullying, lack of support for workers, loss of control over work practices, unclear or conflicting instructions, poor communication, and a lack of recognition for employees.

Individual – Individual psychosocial hazards can vary greatly. Every person is different, so while some workers may handle a high-stress situation with ease, others may experience difficulties.

Environmental – Environmental hazards are usually physical hazards that can impair a person’s mental well-being. These can range from loud noise in the workplace poor air quality, extremely hot or cold temperatures, unsafe equipment or machinery, or uncomfortable working conditions.

The Importance of ISO 45003 in the Workplace

The recently released ISO 45003, the first globally recognised psychological health and safety standard, is a big step forward in recognising the need to protect occupational mental health. ISO 45003 provides employers with guidelines on how to manage psychosocial risks and encourage better mental well-being in the workplace.

By following ISO 45003 in conjunction with ISO 45001, employers can effectively guard against both physical and mental hazards in the workplace.

How Do You Control Psychosocial Hazards in the Workplace?

Controlling psychosocial hazards at work is the responsibility of both employers and employees. It is commonplace in many workplaces to identify and manage any physical risks. The same risk assessment process should apply to psychosocial hazards.

Psychosocial risks should be identified, then assessed to determine the level of risk, prioritised according to their likelihood to inflict harm, then control measures must be devised and implemented.

Control measures can take the form of changing physical aspects of the workplace, issuing protective equipment, or health and safety training. Human Focus offers a range of mental health programmes to help protect workplace mental wellbeing and control for psychosocial risks. This includes Mental Health Awareness, IOSH Managing Safely, and our suite of Mental Health Resilience courses.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is mental safety?

Practising good mental safety simply means ensuring that employees receive the support and guidance they need while at work. This involves being aware of what mental health is and developing an understanding of different mental health issues and their causes.

Which impact of a hazard is psychological?

It could be said that physical injuries and illnesses are inextricably linked to mental health.

Many workers who have suffered an injury at work also develop mental health problems as a result. Feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even suicidal thoughts are common amongst injured workers.

However, there are also workplace hazards that are purely psychological in nature. These can include sexual harassment, verbal harassment, bullying, or being exposed to violent or traumatic incidents.

What is the most adverse effect of psychological hazards to a worker?

Both short-term and prolonged exposure to psychological hazards can have a wide range of adverse effects on both physical and mental health. Workers can experience mental issues such as depression, anxiety or burnout. They can also experience impaired cognitive performance and suffer from an inability to concentrate and have poorer decision-making and memory skills.

Physical ailments can arise from exposure to psychological hazards in the workplace. Workers that have mental health problems often suffer from increased blood pressure, heart conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, diabetes, stroke, and sleep disorders.

There are significant financial costs to businesses that do not control psychological hazards in the workplace. Ultimately, however, it is the human cost of being exposed to psychological hazards that has the greatest negative impact on society. The mental and physical problems caused by psychological hazards can cause serious problems both at work and in an individual’s personal and family life.

Are employers legally required to help with depression?

The UK has stringent regulations relating to depression and employment law. Under the UK Equality Act 2010, if an employee has a “physical or mental impairment” which results in a “substantial and long-term adverse effect” on their “ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities” then they can be classified as disabled. UK law can view depression as a disability. This designation increases the possibility that an employer can be sued for discrimination if they dismiss an employee for being depressed.

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Joe Vickers
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