All businesses have psychosocial factors that impact workers. Learn more about key psychosocial hazards and risks.
Protecting workers’ mental health is more than limiting exposure to physical hazards. Businesses need to consider the potential for harm caused by job design, relationships, and the working environment to workers mental wellbeing. This means being able to identify potential psychosocial hazards and addressing any psychosocial risks that exist.
Explaining psychosocial factors, hazards, and risks
“Psychosocial” describes the relationship between a person’s thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and the social environment. How the way we think and feel, and what we do, are influenced by the physical and social settings we live in.
Identifying psychosocial factors at work is about considering the way work (the tasks we do, where they are done, and who we interact with) affects how we feel, think, and behave. These can be positive, negative, or neutral, and different for different people.
When referring to work, psychosocial hazards refer to the design and management of work and its social organisational context that may have the potential for causing mental or physical harm.
Psychosocial hazards can be thought about as workplace stressors, the things at work that may cause stress or negatively impact people’s hauora (wellbeing). Such as emotionally difficult work, high work loads, conflict at work or uncomfortable working spaces.
The international ISO45003 Psychosocial Health and Safety at Work: Managing Psychosocial Risk Guidelines defines psychosocial risk as, “the combination of the likelihood of occurrence of exposure to work-related hazard(s) of a psychosocial nature and the severity of injury and ill-health that can be caused by these hazards.”
Not all psychosocial hazards will be of concern to every business. It is important to identify the hazards that could be present 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.
Addressing psychosocial risks
All businesses have psychosocial factors (positive or negative) that impact workers. The risks will depend on each workplace.
Often the focus of workplace interventions around psychosocial risks is on supporting workers once harm has occurred, for example providing access to a counsellor or having time off after a stressful event. Although these actions are important in supporting workers to recover from harm, it is better to take action to prevent harm occurring in the first instance.
Focusing on structural or organisational processes can be a more effective way of controlling risks. By considering the needs of workers in job design, having strong social relationships, and creating a positive work environment, businesses can reduce the potential for unhealthy work.
Additionally, designing systems that encourage worker engagement in all aspects of their work helps prevent harm and enables people to be more engaged, productive, and resilient.
When addressing psychosocial risks aim to have systems that:
- proactively protect workers from harm (designing work that eliminates health risks, for example)
- support mental wellbeing, and
- restore workers’ health when harm occurs.
Psychosocial factors can be grouped into three categories
There are internationally recognised psychosocial factors known to impact positively or negatively on workers mental wellbeing. These can be grouped into the following three categories:
These categories are taken from ISO45003: 2021 – Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks.
The nature of how work is designed has the potential to negatively impact mental health, or support workers to thrive.
Examples of work design include:
- roles and expectations
- job demands
- workload and pace
- autonomy (job control)
- role clarity
- work schedule
- organisational change
- job security
- remote or isolated work.
Relationships or social aspects of work speaks to the culture of an organisation as a whole. It refers to both the interpersonal relationships between people but also the relationship workers have with different systems at work. It is important for leaders to have clear expectations of workers and if there are systems in place to ensure workers have an appropriate work–life balance, for example.
Examples of relationships include:
- organisational environment
- recognition and reward
- career development
- civility and respect
- work/life balance
- interpersonal relationships
- interpersonal relationships – violence
- interpersonal relationships – bullying
- interpersonal relationships – harassment.
Physical aspects of the work environment including office set up, facilities, and equipment can positively or negatively impact workers. Workplaces can proactively ensure the environment is set up for workers to effectively carry out the work.
Examples of the work environment include:
- physical work environment
- hazardous tasks
- notifiable/traumatic events.