A woman covers her face, overwhelmed by the pressures of her work, in a representation of psychosocial hazards.
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Psychosocial perils and the hidden hazards of the workplace

17 Jun 2024

Workplace psychosocial hazards can be destructive, with long-term consequences for the individual, other employees and the company, but what exactly constitutes a psychosocial issue?

Psychosocial hazards, such as excessive workloads, job insecurity and ineffective communication, are unfortunately common across working environments, yet conversations about the topic are not as widespread as they should be.

Chris Mee, the founder and CEO of EHS International, a provider of environmental, health and safety (EHS) services, defines psychosocial hazards as any and all factors in the working environment that have the potential to cause harm to a person’s psychological and physical wellbeing. 

“[They are] integrated into the essence of work, influencing various facets of the workplace such as work demands, interpersonal dynamics, and organisational policies,” Mee explains.

The safeguarding of mental health at work can be difficult, as conversations about the topic are challenging. But as Mee notes, while workplace stressors continue to pose a risk to employee wellbeing and productivity, the conversation is simply a necessity. 

Senior management should always be prepared to address problems, Mee says. “Recognition of the need for risk assessment and control of psychosocial hazards often arises from workplace health and safety incidents, legal proceedings or internal disputes”.

Identifying dangers

Employers have a responsibility to create and maintain a working space free from physical, mental and emotional hazards. Despite our best efforts mistakes can happen, but when they do, a “comprehensive risk assessment is essential for effective hazard management”, forming the core of all efforts to reduce the negative impact. 

Identifying hazard risks, such as bullying, a lack of control, poor communication, job insecurity, isolation, high-dependency clients and ill-managed organisational change, among others, is critical to protect the welfare of employees.

Correctly identifying the issues impacting employee welfare and productivity and differentiating them from regular workplace events is a crucial step. The European Agency for Health and Safety at Work describes psychosocial hazards as being among the more challenging issues within occupational health and safety. 

Therefore, it is imperative that employers recognise when a person’s role, or the atmosphere in which they work, has become unreasonably demanding or draining. 

A sign for employers that their teams are already dealing with the fallout from psychosocial hazards can be varied, explained Mee, presenting as emotional, cognitive, behavioural or physiological in nature. For example, a cognitive response could present as reduced attention, perception and forgetfulness, emotional reactions can include feeling nervous or irritated, a behavioural reaction often comes across as aggression, impulsive actions or consistent mistakes, and physiological responses may involve an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as hyperventilation. 

Strike hard and fast

Legally and ethically, employers are obligated to tackle any threats to an employee’s wellbeing. By implementing relevant supports and placing them at the heart of a company, organisations should be capable of meeting regulatory requirements while “fostering cultures of respect and inclusivity”, says Mee. 

“Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) play a pivotal role in supporting employees facing psychosocial issues by destigmatising mental health concerns and raising awareness of available resources.”

Other practical supports include training and education, where managers and employers can improve their skills and better understand conflict resolution, stress management and emotional intelligence, as well as take advantage of learning and development opportunities. 

By nurturing a workplace culture built on a foundation of open communication and collaboration, Mee says employees will feel valued and respected. The establishment of “regular employee check-ins and feedback channels to uncover stressors and potential psychosocial risks within your workplace” will be key to unearthing psychosocial concerns, he says.

Wider governance

A positive step forward is the broader, countrywide incorporation of psychosocial risks into health and safety regulations. Agencies such as the EU’s Occupational Safety Framework Directive, the Health and Safety Authority and the World Health Organization continue to develop guidelines on managing these risks and in doing so, are greatly raising the “public awareness about the importance and responsibilities held by employers in protecting their employees’ mental wellbeing”, Mee says.

When ignored, the risks associated with psychosocial problems, such as depression, anxiety and even cardiac issues pose a serious threat “not only to the psychological safety of individuals but also to their physical safety within organisations”. 

For Mee, the promotion of mental health is an ongoing journey, wherein employers will have to display a constant commitment to “continuous improvement, ensuring that policies, practices and programmes grow to meet the evolving needs of organisations and employees”. 

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Laura Varley
By Laura Varley

Laura Varley is a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic. She has a background in technology PR and journalism and is borderline obsessed with film and television, the theatre, Marvel and Mayo GAA. She is currently trying to learn how to knit.

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