In the short, grey days of winter, it is important to remember that psychological factors can be as damaging as physical health and safety problems in the workplace. However, their effects can be assessed and controlled in the usual way, reports Jon Herbert.

What are psychological risks?

Psychological risk factors are elements at work that can be damaging to workers’ mental health and wellbeing. Stress that is manageable in a supportive environment, where effective training has been provided and good communication is built into the culture, can have adverse health effects in an unsupportive, badly designed workplace.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) defines psychological risks as follows.

Psychosocial risks arise from poor work design, organisation and management, as well as a poor social context of work, and they may result in negative psychological, physical and social outcomes such as work-related stress, burnout or depression.

Psychosocial risks are often the result of individual perception and not easy to define. This does not make them any less harmful.

Why address psychological risks?

Employers have moral and legal obligations to keep workers safe and healthy and this includes providing not only what the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) calls “civil and respectful” but also “emotionally safe” working environments.

Similarly, employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work, which it defines as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. Stress is not itself an illness but can lead to illnesses when employees feel that they can’t cope.

Psychosocial problems are often linked to problems such as increased absenteeism levels, short-term and prolonged disabilities, falling productivity, plus higher staff turnovers and employer liability costs as more litigation cases are being settled in favour of employees. There is also growing evidence that psychosocial factors can lead to physical musculoskeletal disorders.

How to identify psychological risks

What does this mean in practice? A useful starting point is to identify primary causes, some of which can be recognised from our own working experiences. The HSE notes that many jobs are not well designed and, from an employee perspective, frequently include some the following undesirable trigger points:

  • little control over their work, work methods and shift patterns

  • few chances to make full use of their skills

  • no involvement in decision-making that affects them

  • being given only repetitive monotonous tasks

  • work that is machine or system paced and badly monitored

  • a lack of clarity over work responsibilities

  • excessive work demands

  • payment systems linked to unnecessarily fast work with few breaks

  • few social interaction opportunities

  • high effort levels that bring insufficient rewards.

Factors that can create psychosocial hazards also include:

  • permanent work overloads

  • bullying, harassment or workplace discrimination

  • an absence of suitable supervision

  • disrespectful attitudes among workers and co-workers

  • negative work time/family time balances.

How to control psychosocial risks

The HSE suggests that key opening steps might include:

  • designing out or sharing monotonous tasks, interspersed with more interesting work

  • ensuring reasonable workloads, deadlines and demands

  • creating good communication channels and reporting problems regularly

  • encouraging teamwork

  • monitoring and controlling overtime, shift work and anti-social hours working

  • reducing or carefully monitoring payment systems based on piece work rates

  • providing appropriate training.

As with physical risk factors, the best way to resolve psychosocial issues is through full, open consultation and workforce involvement.

Once the causes are understood, remedial steps that can follow on logically include:

  • making a point of involving workers in decision-making that affects them directly

  • introducing fair management styles, practices and policies

  • ensuring that supervisors have suitable training in communication and people skills

  • making work, work patterns and schedules more flexible

  • guaranteeing better work-life balance options and arrangements

  • showing appreciation and rewarding workers’ efforts

  • monitoring employee satisfaction regularly and acting on findings

  • providing more information to ensure everyone is well-informed

  • methodically reducing work overloads.

Indications that psychological risks are not being managed effectively

A common symptom of an employee suffering psychologically is hostility towards colleagues, clients, visitors and managers, along with depression and feelings of hopelessness.

There is evidence that some common physical ailments and behaviours increase significantly as a result, such as:

  • back pain

  • heart disease

  • musculoskeletal impairments (typically injuries to elbows, hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders and necks, plus muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and discs)

  • susceptibility to infection

  • substance abuse

  • episodes of violent behaviour and conflict

  • certain cancers.

Consider the human factors

The HSE defines human factors as "environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety". It sees the good management of human factors as essential in reducing workplace mistakes and encouraging appropriate behaviour. Employers should work to understand the inter-relationship between the three key human aspects.

Jobs — Jobs are made up of tasks that should be designed along ergonomic principles, plus workloads, working environments, the design of controls and role of procedures. Jobs need to be matched to the physical and mental strengths of people and their limitations. Mental aspects include how jobs and tasks are perceived, how engaging work is and decision-making processes.

Individuals — Recognising that employee competence and self-esteem, skills, personality, attitude and risk perception are important. Individual characteristics influence behaviour in complex ways —some, such as personality, are fixed; others, such as skills and attitudes, may be changed or enhanced.

Organisations — Factors such as work patterns, workplace culture, resources, communications and leadership are often overlooked during the design of jobs but have a significant influence on individual and group behaviour.

Many human factors are now influenced strongly by wider issues amplified via social media.

The HSE recommends an ergonomic approach that looks for a best “fit” between the work involved, specific work environments and the needs and capabilities of individual employees.

Conclusion

Identifying and managing physical health and safety risks in the workplace is now well-established in both procedure and law. However, psychological factors, or psychosocial risks, are understood to a lesser extent even though they can contribute to physical maladies.

Health and safety professionals should take a risk assessment approach to psychological factors, followed by remedial steps that make “good work”, improve engagement and communication, include employees in decision-making and reward them fairly for their efforts.

Further information

Last reviewed 13 March 2019