09 May 2023
by Letitia Rowlin

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, every organisation has a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees. But, while the UK has a good record of safeguarding employees’ physical health and safety, psychosocial risks are often overlooked.   

What are psychosocial hazards? 

Psychosocial hazards are factors within the workplace and the work we do that can negatively affect our psychological and physical health.  

They fall into three categories:  

  1. How we work - This covers everything from workloads, deadlines, and the type of work we do through to whether we feel isolated at work and the balance we strike between work and life.  

  2. Social factors  - This relates to social factors at work and could include poor leadership and communication; bad relationships with colleagues, including harassment and bullying; lack of support; toxic workplace culture; and lack of recognition and reward.  

  3. Environmental pressures - This covers the working environment and could include high noise levels, thermal discomfort, uncomfortable working conditions, fear of violence and abuse or witnessing such an incident.  

How do psychosocial hazards affect employees? 

Psychosocial hazards can result in physical and mental health issues, with the effects of being exposed to these working conditions often building up over time. 

On the physical health side, conditions might include increased blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems while on the mental health side, it can cause conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

As an example, take the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week - anxiety. While some anxiety is natural and can help to motivate us and keep us safe from harm, too much of it can have debilitating effects on our ability to function.  

It’s one of the most commonly seen mental health conditions in the workplace, with symptoms ranging from mild uneasiness to frightening panic attacks. It’s also easy to see how excessive exposure to psychosocial hazards such as excessive workloads, poor leadership and fear of violence, can increase the risk of anxiety.  

Why managing psychosocial risk matters? 

Protecting employees from psychosocial hazards is essential. Nearly 1 million (914,000) cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety were recorded in 2021/22, meaning these conditions accounted for 51% of all work-related health issues. In total, 17 million working days were lost to these three psychological conditions in 2021/22. 

And, when the figures are broken down, the public sector doesn’t fare well. Between 2019/20 and 2021/22, the sectors with the highest average rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety have been public administration and defence; human health and social work; and education. 

The situation could potentially worsen for the public sector too. A government report, Future issues for public service leaders, highlighted some of the pressures affecting the sector. These include finance and funding, with public service organisations expected to deliver more with less; customer needs, especially as these shift due to the cost of living crisis and the pandemic; workforce management, retention and training, with many organisations seeing high levels of attrition; and the political landscape, as central government policy shifts and constraints take away control and the ability to make decisions.  

How to manage psychosocial risk 

Given the size of the problem and the potential for further pressures, understanding and managing psychosocial risk in the workplace is essential. As well as protecting employees from harm, organisations have a legal responsibility to assess health & safety risks, including psychosocial ones: psychosocial risk management should be part of an organisation’s occupational health & safety policy.  

We recommend the following steps to ensure a robust approach to managing psychosocial risk:  

  • Understand the risks. Gather data from the workforce via surveys and focus groups to understand the real issues for workers. Sickness absence and claims data can also provide valuable insight. 

  • Involve employees. Ensure consultation and participation from workers so they are engaged in the conversation but also the solutions. 

  • Create an action plan. Use your insight to produce an action plan. This needs to be realistic and achievable.  

  • Reduce psychosocial risks. Explore how risks can be reduced and health issues prevented. This may be challenging due to current issues but look to prevent illness wherever possible.   

  • Provide support. Organisations can provide employees with help managing their mental health, including training managers and peers to spot signs of poor mental health and signpost support. Support is also important and an area that mental health charity Mind found was lacking in the public sector. Putting interventions such as employee assistance programmes and access to therapies in place can address this.  

Adding psychosocial risk management to the health & safety agenda may feel like an extra pressure. However safeguarding employees from the physical and mental health issues that can result from these risks will create a healthier workplace where individuals feel supported and can flourish.