Introduction

Traditionally, the focus of occupational safety and health has been on physical and chemical hazards in the workplace. Many of these are the subject of individual EU OSH Directives (as provided for under the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC[1]), creating a common approach to hazards such as noise, vibration and dangerous substances. However, there has been a growing awareness that not all hazards have a physical presence. Psychosocial factors, shorthand for the psychological, economic and social influences on workers, can also have an impact on both physical and mental health and well-being

What are ‘psychosocial risk factors’?

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.

Extensive research over many years has identified those work characteristics (‘psychosocial risk factors’) that may result in work-related stress and other health problems, independently of individual dispositions, occupation or cultural background. These include:

ISO standard 45003 Occupational health and safety management - Psychological health and safety at work - Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks [2] divides psychosocial risk factors in 3 categories:

  • aspects of how work is organised;
  • social factors at work;
  • -work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks.

Examples are shown in table 1.

Table 1 – Psychosocial risk factors (examples) based on ISO 45003.

Category Risk factors and examples
Aspects of how work is organised - Roles and expectations, e.g. role ambiguity, role conflict; - Job control or autonomy, e.g. limited opportunity to participate in decision-making; - Job demands e.g. lack of task variety, having too much to do within a certain time or with a set number of workers; - Organisational change management, e.g. prolonged or recurring restructuring; - Remote and isolated work, e.g. working in locations far from usual support networks, working alone in non-remote locations without social/human interaction at work; - Workload and work pace, e.g. work overload or underload, repetitive work; - Working hours and schedule, e.g. shift work, inflexible work schedules, unpredictable hours; - Job security and precarious work, e.g. low-paid or insecure employment.
Social factors at work - Interpersonal relationships, e.g. poor communication, harassment, bullying; - Leadership, e.g. unsuited management style, abuse or misuse of power, poor decision-making practices; - Organisational/workgroup culture, e.g. poor communication, lack of agreement on organisational objectives; - Recognition and reward, e.g. imbalance between workers’ effort and formal and informal recognition and reward; - Career development, e.g. career stagnation and uncertainty; - Support, e.g. lack of support from supervisors and co-workers; - Supervision, e.g. lack of encouragement/acknowledgement, misuse of digital surveillance; - Civility and respect, e.g. lack of trust, honesty, respect, civility and fairness; - Work/life balance, e.g. conflicting demands of work and home, work that impacts the workers’ ability to recover; - Violence at work; - Harassment; - Bullying and victimisation.
Work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks E.g. inadequate equipment availability, suitability, reliability, maintenance or repair, poor workplace conditions such as lack of space, poor lighting and excessive noise.

Source: ISO 45003 – tables 1, 2 and 3[2]

There are many different perspectives on these factors in different countries leading to them sometimes being ‘packaged’ or presented slightly differently. However, the core issues remain the same. Further OSHwiki articles provide more detailed perspectives on specific aspects of the psychosocial work environment and their potential impact on the workforce and can be found under the Subtheme Psychosocial risk factors.

In common with a number of other health problems, such as musculoskeletal disorders, psychosocial factors that can have a negative effect on health can be present in the workplace, but are not necessarily purely work-related and can result from domestic and wider social influences. However, that should not be regarded as an excuse for inaction by employers.

How do they affect workers and businesses?

Psychosocial risks can cause harm on individual health and safety of workers as well as negatively affect businesses by adverse organisational outcomes such as sickness absence, reduced productivity or human error. Prolonged exposure to psychosocial risk factors can lead to physical or mental ill-health such as as burnout, anxiety or depression. It can also cause negative emotional or behavioural changes, impair what is called ‘cognitive performance’ (concentration, memory, decision-making, etc.). Individuals can become irritable or withdrawn leading to relationship problems with colleagues as well as violence, harassment or aggression. Some of these effects, such as bullying can be both a sign of stress and a cause of stress in others. In addition to mental health problems, psychosocial risks can also lead to physical health problems, such as heart disease and musculoskeletal disorders.

From a business perspective there is research evidence that psychosocial health problems and work-related stress can be expensive. A review (2017)[3] based on studies originating from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the EU-15 suggest that the estimated cost of work-related stress to society was considerable and ranged from US$221.13 million to $187 billion.[3] Evidence such as studies showing stress at work leading to an increase in accidents[4], longer periods of sickness absence and greater staff turnover all points to increased costs [5][6] which can be avoided if the risks are carefully identified and reduced in the same way as those concerning physical hazards.

What's the extent of the problem?

Estimates of the extent of the problem vary widely. The 2020 Labour Force Survey (LFS) found that about 45% of those questioned in the EU-27 (27 EU Member States) reported exposure to psychosocial risk factors that could adversely affect their mental well-being (severe time pressure or overload of work; violence or threat of violence; harassment or bullying)[4]

Data from ESENER (European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks – EU-OSHA) [5]show that psychosocial risk factors are widespread. On average one out of two organisations report risk factors such as Having to deal with difficult customers, patients, pupils etc. and Pressure due to time constraints (figure 1). Moreover, a comparison between data from 2014 and 2019 shows an increase for all psychosocial risk factors and it is most noticeable for working under time pressure. Further, it is widely recognised that economic and technological developments across the world are creating changes in the pressures and demands on working people. Although some of these changes can be beneficial, they can also have adverse effects leading to an increase in psychosocial hazards. The rapid advancement of digital technologies (e.g. wearable and tracking devices, digital labour platforms, advanced robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI)) is changing not only what workers do and how they do it, but also the way in which work is managed and organised. Digital systems are used to improve work processes and monitoring worker performance but studies[6] show these systems are associated with an increase in reported psychosocial risks in the workplace. The combination of low control over the job (due to the presence of monitoring technologies or devices setting the content and pace of work) and high demand (as a result of intensification of work and increased workload), results in increased psychosocial risks and potentially work-related stress and other work-related health problems[6]. More information on Digitalisation of work can be found on the EU-OSHA website https://osha.europa.eu/en/themes/digitalisation-work.

Figure 1 - Reported psychosocial risk factors (% of establishments) – Comparison 2014 – 2019 - ESENER
Figure 1 - Reported psychosocial risk factors (% of establishments) – Comparison 2014 – 2019 - ESENER
Source: ESENER[5]
What’s the legal position?

The EU Framework Directive (89/391/EEC)[1] creates a legal obligation on employers to protect their workers by avoiding, evaluating and combating risks to their safety and health (without mentioning specific risks). This includes the psychosocial risks in the workplace which can cause or contribute to stress or mental health problems. The Directive also includes a general duty on workers to comply with protective measures determined by their employer. There are also joint EU ‘Framework Agreements’ agreed by unions and employers, presenting common positions on digitalisation[7] and on how to deal with work-related stress[8] and harassment and violence at work[9].

A more detailed consideration on policy and law in this area within the EU can be found in a further OSHwiki article as well as some country specific articles.

How do I reduce psychosocial risks?

Reducing psychosocial risks at work is good for business and workers. A study based on the results from ESENER showed that establishments adopting an action plan to reduce workplace stress are indeed more successful in addressing psychosocial risks[6]. As with all hazards in the workplace, the assessment and elimination or reduction of risks should take priority. However, a good approach to managing psychosocial risks and work-related stress is likely to involve a combination of measures such as workplace interventions and management methods. Many of these are simply part of good management practice. Implementing them can improve the efficiency of your business as well as helping to maintain a good psychosocial working environment with healthy, effective workers. Some further OSHwiki articles provide sector-specific guidance and are available in the Subtheme Psychosocial issues in specific sectors and groups.

Where can I find more information?

As flagged in this article, further OSHwiki articles, available in the theme of Psychosocial issues, give more detail on psychosocial risks and their management in the workplace; together with further articles on specific psychosocial issues such as bullying, harassmentviolence and discrimination in the workplace as well as wider mental health issues. In addition, the EU-OSHA e-guide provides a practical guide to managing stress and psychosocial risks.[10].

References

[1] Council Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. Available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/smartapi/cgi/sga_doc?smartapi!celexapi!prod!CELEXnumdoc&numdoc=31989L0391&model=guichett&lg=en

[2] ISO 45003 Occupational health and safety management - Psychological health and safety at work - Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. Available at: https://www.iso.org/standard/64283.html

[3] Hassard, J., Teoh, K. R. H., Visockaite, G., Dewe, P., & Cox, T. The Cost of Work-Related Stres s to Society: A Systematic Review. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2017. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000069

[4] c module 2020, Persons reporting exposure to risk factors that can adversely affect mental well-being by sex, age and factor. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/lfs/data/database

[5] EU-OSHA, ESENER 2019, Third European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging. Available at: https://visualisation.osha.europa.eu/esener#!/en/survey/overview/2019

[6] Urzí Brancati, C., Curtarelli, M.., Digital tools for worker management and psychosocial risks in the workplace: evidence from the ESENER surve''y'', Seville: European Commission, 2021, JRC125714. Available at: https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/publications/digital-tools-worker-management-and-psycho-social-risks-workplace-evidence-esener-survey_en

[7] Framework agreement on digitalisation, 2020. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/legislation/guidelines/framework-agreement-digitalisation

[8] Framework agreement on work-related stress, 2004. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/legislation/guidelines/framework-agreement-work-related-stress

[9] Framework agreement on harassment and violence at work, 2007. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/legislation/guidelines/framework-agreement-harassment-and-violence-work

[10] EU-OSHA, E-guide to managing stress and psychosocial risks. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/tools-and-publications/e-guide-managing-stress-and-psychosocial-risks

Further reading

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, E-guide to managing stress and psychosocial risks. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/tools-and-resources/e-guides/e-guide-managing-stress-and-psychosocial-risks

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Calculating the cost of work-related stress and psychosocial risks, 2014. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/calculating-cost-work-related-stress-and-psychosocial-risks

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER). Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/facts-and-figures/esener

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Musculoskeletal disorders and psychosocial risk factors in the workplace — statistical analysis of EU-wide survey data, 2021. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/musculoskeletal-disorders-and-psychosocial-risk-factors-workplace-statistical-analysis-eu-wide-survey-data

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Healthy workers, thriving companies - a practical guide to wellbeing at work, 2018. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/healthy-workers-thriving-companies-practical-guide-wellbeing-work

EU Commission, Knowledge for policy, References to work-related stress. Available at: https://knowledge4policy.ec.europa.eu/health-promotion-knowledge-gateway/work-related-stress-references_en

Select theme

Contributor

Thomas Winski

Richard Graveling

Sandrine Guyot

Karla Van den Broek

Prevent, Belgium
Klaus Kuhl
Juliet Hassard