Psychosocial risks and resulting consequences for mental and physical health are among the most challenging issues in occupational safety and health (OSH). Besides their detrimental effect on individual health, psychosocial risks can also negatively impact the efficiency of organisations as well as national economies.
Stress, anxiety and depression make up the second most common work-related health problem affecting European workers. Raising mental health aspects and mentioning challenges in the workplace is still attached to the fear of stigma. Nevertheless, the proportion of workers who report facing risk factors that can adversely affect their mental health is nearly 45%. However, when viewed as an organisational issue rather than an individual fault, psychosocial risks can be tackled in the same structured and organised way as other OSH risks.
What are psychosocial risks?
Psychosocial risks arise from poor work design, organisation and management, as well as from poor social context of work, and they may result in negative psychological, physical and social outcomes. 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;
- 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; and
- difficult customers, patients, pupils, etc.
When considering the job demands, it is important not to confuse psychosocial risk factors such as excessive workload with conditions where, although work tasks are stimulating and sometimes challenging, there is a supportive work environment in which workers have enough autonomy and they 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 wellbeing.
Workers experience stress when the overall demands of their job are excessive and greater than their capacity to cope with them. In addition to associated mental health problems such as burnout, anxiety, depression and even suicidal intentions, workers suffering from prolonged stress can go on to develop serious physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal disorders.
For the organisation, the negative effects include poor overall business performance, increased absenteeism and presenteeism (workers turning up for work when sick and unable to function effectively), and higher turnover as well as increased accident and injury rates. Absences related to mental health tend to be longer than those arising from other causes and work-related risk factors are an important element contributing to increased rates of early retirement. Estimates of the cost to businesses and society are significant and run into billions of euro at a national level.
How significant is the problem?
The OSH Pulse survey conducted by EU-OSHA in 2022 shows that 27% of workers experience stress, anxiety or depression caused or made worse by work. Some of the psychosocial risks that have been found to have the most detrimental effect on workers’ health are unsocial working hours and work intensity.
A preventive, holistic and systematic approach to managing psychosocial risks is believed to be the most effective. EU-OSHA’s European Survey of Enterprises 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’ OSH risks. Further analysis shows that especially micro and small companies tend to underestimate psychosocial risks and are often lacking appropriate preventive measures. There is a need across all companies and all Member States to raise awareness and provide simple practical tools on a sectoral basis for managing work-related psychosocial risks.
What can be done to prevent and manage psychosocial risks?
European Union policy recognises that mental health must be addressed in a comprehensive way across all policy areas, including mental health at work.
With the right approach, psychosocial risks can be prevented or successfully managed, regardless of business size or type.
Managing work-related psychosocial risks 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.
Employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that workplace risks are properly assessed and controlled. Involving workers in this process is essential to ensure better and more effective identification and management of the risks. Workers and their representatives have the best understanding of the problems that can occur in their workplace, and involving them has been shown to be a success factor when combating psychosocial risks at work.
Find more on practical guidance here.