Managing absence and minimising its occurrence is an ongoing challenge at all stages of the employee lifecycle. The CIPD’s HR Practices in Ireland 2023 report found that in the past year, mental health issues were the second most common cause of absence after COVID-19.
When we examined the factors contributing to mental health issues, workload featured significantly (55%). Approximately a third of respondents perceived a lack of management support, an ‘always on’ culture and concerns around returning to the office. These are significant and warrant attention to reduce any negative impact of work on employees.
Now is the time to put more attention on these psychosocial risks in the workplace. Reflecting its importance, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in June 2021 issued ISO45003, a new health and safety management standard for psychosocial risks in the workplace, providing a globally agreed blueprint for managing workplace mental health.
Traditionally, organisations have significant procedures and protocols to manage physical health and safety at work but less has been done regarding employee mental wellbeing.
One of the barriers in addressing psychological hazards is the lack of understanding that mental wellbeing needs a full risk management approach that is supported by top management. This requires resources, cultural change and cross-department collaboration and clarity of ownership of the topic.
In September 2023, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) published an information sheet to share practical advice on what psychosocial hazards are, the roles and responsibilities of employers and employees, and the steps to take to carry out a risk assessment for psychosocial hazards in the work environment.
What are psychosocial risks?
According to the HSA guidance, the term ‘psychosocial’ relates to the combined influence that psychological factors and the surrounding social environment have on a person's physical and mental wellness and their ability to function. For example, social and cultural norms, the way people interact with each other, or the way work gets done. It combines the mindset of the individual with the work environment – the culture, communications, or workflow.
A good psychosocial environment enhances performance and wellbeing. Certain types of work and working environments (for example, working alone, remote work, shift work and repetitive work) can contribute to psychosocial risk. It is important to identify and understand the common psychosocial hazards (or stressors) which can lead to conflict, distress, poor physical health or occupational illness, and long-term absence from work in your organisation, and put in controls to manage the risks.
Psychosocial hazards must be managed in a systematic way and involve consultation and collaboration across the organisation, similar to other workplace safety and health risks. While the HR function may not always own workplace safety in an organisation, they have responsibilities around many of the mitigations that are needed to address psychosocial hazards.
Typical psychosocial hazards in the workplace include:
- conflicting demands and lack of role clarity
- lack of control over the way work is done and/or the work rate
- lack of support from colleagues and/or management
- poor communication or lack of communication
- shift work
- job insecurity
- remote working
- high-dependency clients
- poorly managed organisational change
- working alone.
Employer and employee responsibilities
Employers have a responsibility to manage known psychosocial hazards. They should:
- carry out a risk assessment to identify psychosocial hazards
- put in place control measures for identified hazards
- communicate policies and procedures to employees
- ensure managers and supervisors are competent/trained to best deal with psychosocial hazards
- ensure adequate records are kept and used to identify trends to address – such records may be informal or formal.
Employees also have their part to play. Their responsibilities include:
- following the policies or procedures in place for dealing with psychosocial hazards
- carrying out the work that they were trained for, in a safe manner
- bringing any issues that make them unable to manage or do their work to their employer’s attention
- behaving in a reasonable, respectful and proper way, treating everyone with dignity and respect while at work
- cooperating with any investigation or assessment regarding a colleague’s behaviour, and truthfully responding to any such enquiries put to them
- reporting any unacceptable and/or dangerous behaviours such as bullying or conflict.
Carrying out a risk assessment for psychosocial hazards
The HSA provides a template and identifies the steps to take to carry out a risk assessment for any psychosocial hazards that could cause harm to people. The risk assessment is the starting point to set up control measures for eliminating or reducing the risk of harm in your workplace. In the case of psychosocial hazards, a risk assessment should identify and manage high risk hazards which a reasonable person would consider harmful.
The main stressors to be assessed in a psychosocial risk assessment include work demands, the controls in place, the supports available (training, support, occupational health), relationships, roles and role clarity, and how change is managed.
Key areas to consider when assessing psychosocial hazards and risks are:
- the type of work being done, for example, exposure to graphic content, difficult customers, threatening behaviours (harm/violence), long driving hours, heavy machinery use
- the work system – for example, shift or remote work
- the type of complaint(s) made
- the workplace culture – this can be assessed through survey or looking at absences or complaints to identify a trend.
The guide highlights the hazard of workplace bullying, reinforcing that all people at work are entitled to be treated respectfully, that employees must understand there is a standard of behaviour expected, and that complaints must be properly handled.
Providing a way for people to discuss any issues arising between individuals or groups, and to make a small input or change at an early stage, can reduce the likelihood of further difficulties.
The CIPD recommends that employers proactively alleviate psychosocial hazards by taking the following steps:
- Identify potential psychosocial risks in the workplace such as high job demands, low job control, workplace bullying or inadequate support systems. Include them in your risk register and work towards remedies. Ensure regular feedback and evaluation in this process.
- Incorporate psychosocial risks into current policies, procedures and governance.
- Nurture a respectful and honest culture by allowing open dialogue between management and employees.
- Consider job design factors such as workload, task variety and autonomy to reduce stress.
- Promote employee wellbeing and work–life balance.
- Provide training and awareness to managers and employees about psychosocial risks, managing stress and mental health issues and how to address them.
- Provide access to mental health resources such as EAPs and counselling services.
- Ensure conflict resolution mechanisms within your organisation address workplace conflicts quickly and effectively.
- Give employees voice on matters that affect their work and wellbeing.
- Implement the Code of Practice for employers and employees on the prevention and resolution of bullying at work.
Creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace benefits not only individual employees but also the overall performance and success of the organisation.
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