What is the psychosocial work environment?

In March 2023, NTA5 MinutesBy Carol McGeadyMarch 29, 2023

Some organisations have a culture that can be toxic, which has a negative effect on the health and wellbeing of staff. It also dramatically affects the organisation’s productivity and financial outlook.

Employers are often overwhelmed by running a business and sometimes don’t realise they have staff health and wellbeing issues. Some of the early signs can be an increased number of employee sick days, a greater number of workplace accidents or near misses, and reduced productivity.

A person conducting a business or undertaking must manage or, better still, eliminate the risk of psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

The psychosocial work environment relates to interpersonal and social interactions that influence behaviour and development.

A psychosocial hazard is anything that can cause psychological harm, i.e. harming a person’s mental health. Psychosocial hazards at work can include:

• Poor support and lack of role clarity
• Poor physical environment
• Violence and aggression
• Bullying
• Harassment, including sexual harassment
• Poor workplace relations
• Conflict
• Traumatic events
• Poor change management

Psychosocial stressors are common in workplaces and take numerous forms. Exposure to psychosocial stressors, if sustained, is linked to psychiatric/ psychological disorders, illness and/or physical injury. Decades of descriptive occupational health and safety research have reliably demonstrated that work-related stress stemming from psychosocial hazards is associated with various physiological pathologies, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, impaired wound healing, musculoskeletal disorders and impaired immune competence.

In addition, health deficits that are, in part, stress-related include bronchitis, mental illness, thyroid disorders, skin diseases, certain types of rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, tuberculosis, headaches and migraine, peptic ulcers and ulcerative colitis and diabetes. Work-related stress can be influenced by organisational and individual factors. Factors that are known determinants of psychosocial stress and harmful to workers’ health are aspects of work design – how work is organised and managed.

Understanding what psychosocial hazards at work are is the first step in the right direction to eliminating them from your workplace. Good leadership is essential for a healthy working environment. A leader lacking empathy and good leadership skills can make a workplace unbearable.

Friendly relationships with colleagues and showing appreciation positively affect the psychosocial work environment. On the other hand, the absence of close relationships and a lack of appreciation and validation can negatively affect motivation and commitment.

Workplaces contain hazards, some of which may be psychosocial stressors. Definitions of psychosocial hazards tend to be broad, and this breadth accurately reflects the complex relationship between the social environment and health outcomes.

It is unacceptable to work in a place where no one knows who is responsible, where the required tools aren’t available and the expectations and working schedule are unclear.

Across all occupations, there is widespread acknowledgement that psychosocial hazards constitute a significant health risk for workers, yet in many workplaces, the focus remains on physical hazards. It is argued that the downplaying of workplace psychosocial hazards is primarily due to the perception that they present a more difficult and complex challenge when compared to other health and safety issues. Others, however, argue that the lack of awareness about psychosocial hazards and their mitigation explains their relative neglect. Following global trends, the government recognises that psychosocial hazards must be minimised within our workplaces and that there is a requirement for workplace interventions to reduce psychological harm and promote mental health for all New Zealand workers.

The HARMfree Transport Programme, launching later this year, will provide transport business owners with the tools to identify and manage psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

HARMfree Transport provides a programme with transport-specific content to address the unique pressures the industry faces. Transport workers are subject to long periods of isolation, high-pressure working conditions, circadian disruption and sleep deprivation, causing stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue. Much information is available on these issues, but you must search for it. Bringing all those resources and data into an easy-to-follow programme saves time for employers and the scheme is designed with easily implemented practical information.

If you would like to learn more about the HARMfree Transport Programme, please contact programme manager John Sansom at info@harmfree.nz.