Injury prevention in the workplace is about more than just fall risks, ergonomic hazards, and fatigue—it’s also about the hidden factors that can lead to safety issues, lost productivity, and high turnover among employees.
Among these less-visible hazards are psychosocial risks, a unique category of workplace risk that stems not just from physical hazards but from problems in the management and administration of work. These hazards are closely connected to workplace stress, a source of injury risk that has increased dramatically since the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020. Now, workers face more variables in their jobs than ever. With organizations and employers often struggling to keep workers on board, finding ways to mitigate the sources of psychosocial risk has become an essential part of any safety and risk management program.
So what is a psychosocial risk, and what are some examples of psychosocial risk factors? Let’s dig into the details and talk about potential solutions.
What are psychosocial risk factors?
In brief, psychosocial hazards or psychosocial risk factors are factors related to the design, management, and administration of work that contribute to or increase the risk of physical, mental, or emotional harm to an employee.
Unlike many risk factors handled by workplace safety leaders, psychosocial hazards are less likely to take the form of obvious physical hazards that lead to common injuries like musculoskeletal disorders, repetitive motion injuries, and other ergonomic issues. With those risk types, hazards identified in workstation, equipment, and task design are typically discussed in the context of the physical risks they induce, such as overexertion injuries, fatigue, accidents, ergonomic strain, and other incidents.
With psychosocial risks, the discussion centers more around how workplace factors lead to psychological effects that can contribute to other kinds of risk. While the ultimate consequences of psychosocial hazards can indeed include physical and ergonomic injuries like MSDs and RSIs, these tend to follow from less concrete effects such as increased stress, feelings of distrust among coworkers, and disengagement from tasks.
Psychosocial Risk Factors: Examples
These are some of the most common examples of psychosocial hazards in the workplace.
- Work or task design problems: Tasks that are poorly designed can cause stress on the employees responsible for those tasks. Out-of-date or improperly fitted equipment needed to complete specific tasks can cause mental stress on the employee, which can lead to frustration, loss of focus, and fatigue, among other injury risks.
- Job mismanagement or poor administrative support: Another common driver of psychosocial risk in the workplace stems from management. Lack of awareness or understanding of how specific tasks and facilities operate can cause problems for employees. Workers may also experience stress and diminished job performance when they are not properly supported by their managers, which can occur when workers are not provided with adequate training for their roles. Inconsistent communication, lack of transparency, and lack of recognition or reward for employees can also spur psychosocial risk.
- Environmental hazards: The presence of common environmental hazards can spur feelings of frustration and stress among workers. In particular, psychosocial risk can arise from extreme working temperatures, poor airflow, high noise levels, and improperly maintained equipment.
- Social problems in the workplace: High levels of workplace conflict, problems with relationships between employees and management, workplace bullying, harassment, pay disparities, and lack of change management can all contribute to stress and psychosocial risk.
- Workplace violence: Especially concerning in workplaces that interface with the general public, workplace violence has grown in frequency over the last two years. In April of 2022, Zippia reported that some 68% of workers do not feel safe at work, and about half of human resources professionals have reported at least one incident of workplace violence at some point in their tenure.
The Effects of Psychosocial Hazards at Work
The potential consequences of psychosocial risks in the workplace will come as no surprise to most safety and HR professionals. They include loss of focus, disengagement from work tasks, acute and chronic fatigue, deteriorating social conditions for workers, distraction, and chronic pain, all of which stem from one primary factor: stress.
Stress is also connected to other major wellness concerns, particularly in the realm of mental health. Depression and anxiety often stem at least in part from stress, which may help explain the dramatic rise in employee turnover that organizations have experienced in 2022. With the Great Resignation still happening and stress levels remaining consistently high, employers need every bit of support they can get when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent.
What can managers and safety leaders do to mitigate psychosocial risk?
While these risks can have serious implications for an employer’s financial health, there are several steps management can take to combat psychosocial hazards.
1. Develop a clear policy on psychosocial hazards: Because management’s role is so central in combating this type of risk, it’s essential to offer a clearly written policy that outlines the employer’s commitment to tackling these hazards. The policy should include clear definitions of psychosocial hazards along with clear protocols for dealing with them when they arise.
2. Ensure adequate worker training: Without proper training, workers often feel unsupported by their employers, as though they haven’t been given the proper tools to complete the assigned task. This leads to frustration and stress, and often turnover or worse. Training should be provided not just when the worker is initially hired to the job, but also on an ongoing basis throughout the employee’s tenure. Reinforcing essential concepts related to job tasks as well as general safety protocols (ergonomics, biomechanics, industrial athlete training) will help employees understand their tasks better and feel more supported by management.
3. Conduct risk assessments: Certified safety and ergonomic professionals can perform thorough reviews of your work environment to identify psychosocial risk factors and hazards, addressing them before they snowball into costly problems or injuries. This process can be tied into other safety processes such as ergonomic assessments and worksite evaluations that are essential for maintaining workplace safety standards.
4. Foster a culture of safety: An organization-wide culture of safety and transparency starts at the top with executives, directors, and managers. The top level of the organization should be educated on the risks associated with psychosocial hazards and the potential financial consequences of these hazards. From there, communication between management and front-line employees should include regular programming on the causes of psychosocial risk, including bullying, harassment, and fear of retaliation that can make employees reticent to report problems. Encourage early reporting of both personal issues such as stress or pain as well as workplace hazards that employees might observe while on the job.
Psychosocial risk factors are sure to become a larger topic of conversation in the safety world as stress levels continue to affect employees across industries. To learn more about the potential effects of psychosocial hazards, download DORN’s white paper, The Psychological and Secondary Effects of Pain.
Looking to learn more about mitigating psychosocial workplace hazards? Contact DORN for a free consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org