Psychosocial risks and mental health

Psychosocial risks and stress. Several workers wearing telephone headsets

Psychosocial risks and work-related stress are among the most challenging issues in occupational safety and health. They impact significantly on the health of individuals, organisations and national economies.

Around half of European workers consider stress to be common in their workplace, and it contributes to around half of all lost working days. Like many other issues surrounding mental health, stress is often misunderstood or stigmatised. However, when viewed as an organisational issue rather than an individual fault, psychosocial risks and stress can be just as manageable as any other workplace safety and health risk.

What are psychosocial risks and stress?

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. Some examples of working conditions leading to psychosocial risks are:

  • Excessive workloads
  • Conflicting demands and lack of role clarity
  • Lack of involvement in making decisions that affect the worker and lack of influence over the way the job is done
  • Poorly managed organisational change, job insecurity
  • Ineffective communication, lack of support from management or colleagues
  • Psychological and sexual harassment, third party violence

When considering the job demands, it is important not to confuse psychosocial risks such as excessive workload with conditions where, although stimulating and sometimes challenging, there is a supportive work environment in which workers are well trained and motivated to perform to the best of their ability. A good psychosocial environment enhances good performance and personal development, as well as workers’ mental and physical well-being.

Workers experience stress when the demands of their job are excessive and greater than their capacity to cope with them. In addition to mental health problems, workers suffering from prolonged stress can go on to develop serious physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal problems.

For the organisation, the negative effects include poor overall bussiness performance, increased absenteeism and presenteeism (workers turning up for work when sick and unable to function effectively) and increased accident and injury rates. Absences tend to be longer than those arising from other causes and work-related stress may contribute to increased rates of early retirement. Estimates of the cost to businesses and society are significant and run into billions of euros at a national level.

How significant is the problem?

A European opinion poll conducted by EU-OSHA shows that about a half of workers consider the problem with work-related stress to be common in their workplace. Among the most frequently mentioned causes of work-related stress are job reorganisation or job insecurity, working long hours or excessive workload, and harassment and violence at work. EU-OSHA provides information on recent data and research evidence relating to the prevalence and safety and health impact of work-related stress and psychosocial risks

A preventive, holistic and systematic approach to managing psychosocial risks is believed to be the most effective. EU-OSHA’s Enterprise Survey on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) explores how psychosocial risks are perceived and managed across European enterprises, identifying the main drivers, barriers and needs for support. The survey shows that psychosocial risks are believed to be more challenging and more difficult to manage than ‘traditional’ occupational safety and health risks. There is a need for raising awareness and simple practical tools facilitating dealing with work-related stress, violence and harassment. 

What can be done to prevent and manage psychosocial risks?

With the right approach, psychosocial risks and work-related stress can be prevented and successfully managed, regardless of bussiness size or type. They can be tackled in the same logical and systematic way as other workplace safety and health risks.

Managing stress is not just a moral obligation and a good investment for employers, it is a legal imperative set out in Framework Directive 89/391/EEC, supported by the social partners’ framework agreements on work-related stress and harassment and violence at work.

Furthermore, the European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being recognises the changing demands and increasing pressures in the workplace and encourages employers to implement additional, voluntary measures to promote mental well-being.

Although employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that workplace risks are properly assessed and controlled, it is essential that workers are also involved. Workers and their representatives have the best understanding of the problems that can occur in their workplace. Involving them will ensure that the measures put in place are both appropriate and effective.

EU-OSHA provides a wealth of information and practical help on identifying, preventing and managing psychosocial risks and work-related stress.