Psychosocial risks and stress at work
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 health and safety 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 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 business performance, increased absenteeism, 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, particularly among white-collar workers. 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?
Stress is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem in Europe.
A European opinion poll conducted by EU-OSHA found that more than a half of all workers considered work-related stress to be common in their workplace. The most common causes of work-related stress were job reorganisation or job insecurity (reported by around 7 in 10 respondents), working long hours or excessive workload and bullying or harassment at work (around 6 in 10 respondents). The same poll showed that around 4 in 10 workers think that stress is not handled well in their workplace.
In the larger Enterprise Survey on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) around 8 in 10 European managers expressed concern about work-related stress in their workplaces; however, less than 30% admitted having implemented procedures to deal with psychosocial risks. The survey also found that almost half of employers consider psychosocial risks more difficult to manage than ‘traditional’ or more obvious occupational safety and health risks.
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 business size or type. They can be tackled in the same logical and systematic way as other workplace health and safety 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.