This page provides information on identifying workplace risk, and examples of protective factors for mentally healthy work.

There is no one-size fits all approach to creating mentally healthy work. To identify their risks and protective factors, businesses should look at what work they do, who is involved and their work environment.

Healthy workplaces promote mental wellbeing, and support workers’ health when harm occurs. They also proactively protect workers from harm occurring in the first place.

Businesses can start by:

  1. identifying potential hazards in work design, relationships, and environment 
  2. assessing the level of risk a hazard has – consider the likelihood and consequences taking workers into consideration
  3. acting to eliminate risk (when possible), increase protection and support when harm happens
  4. reviewing to ensure actions are working.

Identifying risk and protective factors

Protecting workers’ mental wellbeing is more than limiting physical hazards. Businesses need to consider if the type of job, the way the work is done, work relationships, and the work environment might cause harm.

Risk factors include: negative work environments, low job control, low support, meaningless work, conflicting demands and deadlines, high/low workloads, inconsistent management, job insecurity, bullying, and harassment (including sexual harassment). These factors are called psychosocial hazards or risks.

Read more about psychosocial hazards and risks

Risks can become worse if they aren’t addressed quickly and early. The most common psychosocial risks for workers in Aotearoa are the pace and quantity of work, completing emotionally complex work, and the belief that stress and personal life need to be kept separate from work.

There are also aspects to a workplace that can enhance mental wellbeing. Sometimes called protective factors, these include job flexibility, positive relationships, clear work expectations, and work satisfaction. Protective factors can support a businesses’ goals to reduce hazards. By identifying and addressing risk factors and putting in place protective factors, businesses are best placed to reduce harm and optimise worker mental health.

Examples of risk and protective factors

Here are examples of protective and risk factors using Sir Mason Durie’s Māori health model, Te Whare Tapa Whā.

Taha hinengaro (mental and emotional wellbeing)

Work protective factors:

  • Control over workflow
  • Feeling heard, clear feedback
  • Involved in relevant decision-making
  • Manageable workload and clear expectations

Work risk factors:

  • Fast paced and/or demanding work
  • Exposure to traumatic events
  • Effort and reward imbalance
  • Insecure employment

Taha tinana (physical wellbeing)

Work protective factors:

  • Adequate rest and recuperation
  • Comfortable physical work environment
  • Well-paced work
  • Resources and tools support job tasks

Work risk factors:

  • Long hours and shift work
  • Little rest
  • Repetitive tasks
  • Working alone or in remote or isolated places

Taha whānau (family and social wellbeing)

Work protective factors:

  • Clear, timely communication
  • Respect and inclusion at work
  • Support from manager and colleagues
  • Work/life in balance, flexible working
  • Recognition of contribution

Work risk factors:

  • Shifting goals, unclear expectations
  • Negative work behaviours, for example gossip, withholding information
  • Exposure to negative behaviours, for example bullying
  • Poor communication

Taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing)

Work protective factors:

  • Meaningful work
  • Sense of purpose
  • Learning and developing skills
  • Sense of mastery (skills utilised)

Work risk factors:

  • Disconnected from others
  • Lack of meaning and contribution
  • Cultural exclusion and discrimination
  • Mismatched values

Read more on Te Whare Tapa Whā and mentally healthy work

Find a more comprehensive list of psychosocial factors to consider

Assessing risk at work

Not all psychosocial hazards will be of concern to every business. It is important to identify the hazards that could happen in your workplace and how much harm they could cause. Assessing the level of risk a hazard has helps prioritise the actions a business needs to take to protect people from harm.

Assessing risks involves considering:

  • the likelihood (probability of workers being exposed to risks)
  • the consequences, (harms that could happen), and
  • workers’ perspectives about exposure to risks. 

All workers are not equally vulnerable, even if they do the same job in the same workplace. Individual factors such as age, gender, culture, work experience, life circumstances, and personal resilience, contribute to the level of risk.  This means workers may be impacted differently by psychosocial risks. The same is true for workers’ responses to protective factors. This is why it is important to include workers perspectives when identifying and assessing psychosocial hazards and risks.

Acting to eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks

It is not always possible to eliminate psychosocial risks in the workplace. There may not be any single cause and there could be cumulative or different ways in which risks impact workers’ mental wellbeing.

Interventions need to address immediate risks and identify possible risks, as well as preventing those risks from happening in the future.

Consider interventions that:

  1. proactively protect workers from harm (planning so work is carried out in a way that is less likely to cause stress, injury, harm, or illness)
  2. support mental wellbeing (provide training, tools, and supports so people can better manage risks and strengthen wellbeing), and
  3. restore workers’ health when harm occurs (offer employee assistants programmes, return to work support, etc).

Mentally healthy work is more than risk management

Creating mentally healthy work is more than just assessing and managing risk. It’s about ensuring there are positive structures in place to protect workers and support their mental wellbeing from the outset.

How work is organised, social factors at work, and aspects of the work environment can all impact mental wellbeing. Mentally healthy work involves both the protection from risk factors and having protective factors that are supportive of mental wellbeing. 

Examples of how to address risks and support mental wellbeing

To prevent harm and improve mental health in the workplace, businesses can: 

  • create manageable workloads that are achievable within the given timeframes
  • give workers a sense of control over the work being done and involve them in decisions about their work
  • make social support available from workers and leaders
  • give access to the resources needed to do the work; this includes the right equipment, training, and time
  • appropriately recognise and reward work
  • treat all workers fairly.

In addition to protection from potential risks, business can protect wellbeing through:

  • having supportive and competent leaders who prioritise mental wellbeing and promote safe and open discussion
  • designing work that has opportunities for workers to use their skills, apply their ideas, influence decisions, and to learn new skills
  • treating workers fairly and respectfully. Fostering mutual trust and respect and a sense of belonging, acceptance, and contribution among teams
  • promoting inclusivity and including workers in decision-making processes.

Reviewing how things are going

Checking in with workers, asking for feedback and regular review of how things are working are important to ensure things are going as intended. Workers are the best source of information to understand what is happening on the ground, what is needed, and what could be improved.

Including workers in health and safety conversations will result in better assessment of psychosocial risks, safer systems, higher engagement, and more effective solutions.

Signs of mentally unhealthy work can be seen in high absenteeism, presenteeism, sickness absence, lower productivity, and higher intentions to resign and employee turnover. While these aren’t definitive indicators of a problem, they should prompt a business to engage with workers to understand the nature of the problems and identify areas for improvement.

Further resources