Beyond Physical Safety: Addressing Psychosocial Risks for a Thriving Workplace
The conversation around workplace safety has gone beyond tangible, physical risks to include mental and emotional health and well-being. We’ve recently been faced with the term ‘psychosocial hazards’ – a concept gaining ground, not just in occupational health discussions, but also in boardroom agendas across Australia.
While traditional safety measures focus on preventing physical injuries, psychosocial hazards highlight the more subtle, yet equally detrimental, aspects of work life that can affect an individual’s health and wellbeing.
They include a blend of both psychological and social elements in the workplace, extending from job design and work management to social interactions among colleagues.
While these hazards might not always manifest as visible injuries, they can lead to significant stress, mental health issues and decreased productivity. And that’s crucial for businesses to understand.
With a focus on this topic, we aim to shine a spotlight on these ‘silent stressors’, making a case for their recognition, understanding and proactive management in the workplace.
Unpacking Psychosocial Hazards: The Categories Simplified
When we talk about workplace dangers, images of heavy machinery, electric risks, or physical strain might come to mind. However, psychosocial hazards, although less visible, can be just as harmful.
They’re deeply intertwined with the way work is designed and managed and the interpersonal relationships within the workplace.
To help businesses better understand these hazards, we’ve simplified them into three broader categories:
1. Work Design and Management
This category focuses on the tasks at hand, how they’re structured and the autonomy an employee has.
Job Demands: A balanced workload is essential for the well-being of employees. Extremes, whether too much work or too little of it, pose risks. For instance, an employee might face excessive demands during peak business seasons and then have minimal tasks during slower periods.
An OECD study reported that on average about 13% of Australian employees work over 50 hours weekly, risking stress and fatigue. Conversely, too little work can lead to disengagement or feelings of insignificance.
Low Job Control: Job satisfaction often depends on the control employees have over tasks. Low job control means workers can’t decide how or when they work. It’s different from having set tasks or structured job responsibilities; it’s about constantly feeling restricted.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 38% of employees didn’t have authority over their work, which can reduce job satisfaction. Recognising and rectifying this hazard is crucial for maintaining a motivated and engaged workforce.
Lack of Role Clarity: The certainty and understanding of one’s role within an organisation are critical to effective job performance. When employees are unsure about their job description, their responsibilities, or the expectations set for them, it leads to a lack of role clarity. This isn’t just about occasionally facing complex tasks; the issue becomes hazardous when the ambiguity is extreme, consistent, or recurrent.
Inadequate Reward and Recognition: Job satisfaction is a fine balance between an employee’s efforts and the recognition they receive. This can range from awards to simple verbal praise. Overlooking recognition can become problematic if it’s a regular or long-standing issue.
Consistent employee recognition can lead to significant improvements in the workplace. Doubling the number of recognitions each week, can improve work quality by 24%, reduce absenteeism by 27%, and decrease staff turnover by 10%.
Poor Organisational Change Management: Change is inherent to organisational growth. But how that change is managed determines its success and the impact on the company’s workforce and productivity.
A staggering 70% of change initiatives fail, often due to employee pushback and weak management. Poor organisational change management includes transitions that are haphazardly planned, communicated, supported, or executed. It isn’t about a decision that isn’t well-received. Poor change management becomes a significant psychosocial hazard when it’s notably flawed, sustained, or a regular occurrence.
2. Social and Organisational Context
This category focuses on the social fabric of a workplace, which plays a pivotal role in employee wellbeing.
Poor Support: Every individual relies on support systems within the workplace. These systems constitute the backbone of daily operations and overall job satisfaction. ‘Poor support’ goes beyond the inconvenience of waiting for a colleague to wrap up a meeting. It’s the persistent and profound lack of assistance from peers, supervisors, or even the deficiency of resources required for efficient job performance.
When the lack of support becomes regular, acute, or sustained, it goes from being a mere inconvenience to a notable psychosocial hazard. The consequences are many – from declining morale to reduced productivity and increased turnover.
Poor Organisational Justice: ‘Organisational justice’ really boils down to fairness at work. It’s about how employees feel they’re treated by the company, its rules, and the bosses. It’s not just about small problems, like not getting the work shift you wanted. It’s about bigger issues where workers often feel ignored, unvalued or mistreated.
Recognising and addressing these issues of organisational justice is about cultivating a culture where every employee feels integral to the success of the organisation.
Conflict or Poor Relationships: Having a good working relationship with colleagues is key to a positive workplace. But sometimes, behaviours that hurt others creep in. These can range from:
- Violence and Aggression: Physical or verbal acts that intimidate or harm.
- Bullying: Repeated actions that make someone feel belittled or unsafe.
- Harassment: This includes unwanted behaviours based on gender, race, age, ability, and other personal factors.
- General Workplace Issues: Everyday conflicts or misunderstandings that spoil relationships and teamwork.
It’s important to understand that we’re not talking about small, isolated incidents. It’s about serious behaviours that persistently disrupt the workplace and strain professional relationships.
Violence and Aggression: This refers to situations where an individual faces abuse, threats, or physical assaults while on the job. In addition to the immediate physical harm, the psychological impact can be long-lasting and severe, posing significant health and safety concerns.
Business owners must address and manage the risks associated with violence and aggression in the workplace. This responsibility extends not just to conflicts among employees but also involves interactions with external individuals, such as customers and clients. Ensuring a safe environment for all is paramount, and businesses must be proactive in mitigating these risks.
Bullying: Would it surprise you to know that almost half of all Australians will be bullied in some way?
Workplace bullying is characterized by ongoing, unwarranted actions aimed at an individual or a group of workers. It’s not a simple disagreement or one-off incident; it’s a consistent pattern of behaviour that can deeply affect those on the receiving end. The consequences of bullying extend beyond emotional distress; it can also lead to tangible physical harm, elevating it to a critical health and safety concern.
Businesses are obligated to identify, address, and manage the threats associated with bullying in the workplace. Every employee has the right to a safe working environment, and businesses need to step up and ensure this protection.
Harassment (including Sexual Harassment): Harassment in the workplace, whether it’s based on gender, race, age, ability, or other personal factors, is a pressing concern. It creates an environment of fear, mistrust, and discomfort, affecting not only the targeted individuals but also those around them.
Workplace sexual harassment is particularly severe and unacceptable. It can manifest in various ways: some actions are blatant, while others might be more hidden or insidious. Whether it’s a repeated pattern or a single incident, the effects are profound. Such harassment traumatizes the direct victim and can also deeply affect those who witness it.
By addressing harassment head-on and fostering a culture of respect and safety, businesses not only comply with the law but also create a healthier, more productive work environment.
3. Work Environment and Conditions
This category focuses on the actual conditions and environments where work is performed.
Remote or Isolated Work: Remote or isolated work refers to jobs where employees are separated from the help or company of others due to the location, timing, or the kind of task they’re performing. This type of work might involve extensive travel, limited resources, or sparse communication options. It poses unique challenges, demanding both workers and employers to adapt and ensure safety and efficiency.
Poor Physical Environment: A poor physical environment at work refers to situations where workers consistently face unpleasant, substandard, or even dangerous situations. This could be anything from poor lighting and ventilation to exposure to harmful substances.
When such conditions are extreme, persistent, or a regular occurrence, they transform from mere annoyances into significant psychosocial hazards. Addressing these issues is crucial for the well-being and safety of employees and their overall productivity and morale.
Traumatic Events or Material: Being exposed to traumatic events or material at work refers to facing situations or content that deeply distress or shock. Whether it’s witnessing an unsettling incident, investigating a harrowing case, or consistently being exposed to disturbing materials, such experiences can have profound psychological impacts on workers.
Recognising and addressing the risks associated with such traumatic exposures is crucial. It safeguards the mental well-being of employees, ensuring they can work effectively and healthily.
Understanding these categories helps businesses take a holistic approach to identifying potential problems. It’s the first step in ensuring a healthier, more supportive, and productive work environment.
Why Should Busineses Care?
At its core, a business thrives on the well-being and productivity of its employees. Addressing psychosocial hazards isn’t merely about ticking off compliance boxes. It’s a strategic move towards creating a thriving, positive work environment.
When businesses prioritise the mental and physical health of their employees, they directly boost workplace morale. This proactive approach not only curbs absenteeism but also reduces staff turnover, saving on recruitment costs and preserving organisational knowledge.
Moreover, in an age where reputation is everything, a company known for its commitment to employee well-being stands out. It attracts top talent and earns respect in the marketplace. In essence, by addressing these risks, businesses are investing in their most valuable asset – their people.
Taking the Next Steps
Identifying psychosocial hazards is just the beginning. The true challenge lies in continuous vigilance and responsive action. Businesses should engage in regular evaluations to create a workplace that is not only safe but one that thrives.
These assessments should be tailored to the unique dynamics of each workplace. Coupled with this, fostering open communication channels is vital. Encouraging employees to voice concerns or share experiences can unearth potential issues before they escalate. This dialogue builds trust and emphasises the organisation’s commitment to its workforce.
Lastly, having proactive measures in place – whether it’s training programs, mental health support, or clear policies – can pre-emptively address potential risks. By taking these steps, businesses are not just averting problems; they’re sculpting a culture of care and inclusivity.