When do we talk about psychosocial risks at work?

Psychosocial risks are often simplistically summarised as “stress”, something that is in fact only one manifestation of this risk. In reality, they cover occupational risks of various origins and types, which affect the physical integrity and mental health of employees and therefore have an impact on the smooth running of companies. They are called “psycho-social” because they are at the interface of an individual (the “psycho”) and his or her work situation.

Psychosocial risks at work can be seen as poorly regulated tensions, for example, between objectives and the resources allocated to achieve them, between the demands of the job and a person’s skillset, between the expectations of the hierarchy and the expectations of the worker, and so on.

There has always been a degree of tension in the work relationship between a company’s projects and those of an employee, since they are generally different or even divergent, apart from a few exceptions. It is through the support of the organization, management, internal social relations, technical support and a pleasant and secure environment that what is written in the employment contract is translated into the daily reality of the employee through more or less balanced compromises. These balances, once constructed, always remain relative because they are bound to evolve, never satisfying all the protagonists on all their criteria. This is what we call the regulation of psychosocial tensions.

Psychosocial risk factors

The stress factors likely to create psychosocial risks can be very numerous and diverse. They can be broadly grouped into four main categories:

  • factors related to work relations, difficulties with superiors, subordinates and colleagues
  • factors related to the demands of the work, the nature of the tasks (monotony, overload or underload of work, high demands related to the pace, precision of the work and vigilance, arduous and dangerous tasks, incessant disturbances, unfavourable physical environment: noise, heat, lack of space, etc.) or the organisation of the work (working hours that do not allow for physiological recovery, contradictory demands, lack of clear objectives, responsibility related to the execution of the task, etc.)
  • factors related to the demands of employees with regard to their work, to the human resources policy (discrepancy between the work required and the values of the person, lack of meaning, lack of recognition of the work done, poor professional prospects, over or under qualification, unsatisfactory remuneration, working hours that are unpredictable and/or detrimental to personal life, etc.)
  • factors linked to a difficult adaptation to change (difficult socio-economic environment and increased competition, uncertainty about the future of one’s company or an employee’s own future, unclear strategy, uncoordinated or poorly supported organisational or technological change projects, etc.)

Poor regulation of psychosocial tensions can have consequences for the company and generate unrest among employees.

Consequences for companies

The immediate and delayed effects of psychosocial risks on the overall performance of a company, even if they are not immediately perceived as being directly related, can generate considerable costs through increased reports of incapacity to work, more employees declaring themselves unfit, lower output, poorer quality of output, loss of customers, accidents in the workplace, more incidents and conflicts between employees, with management or with customers, increased staff turnover, reduced attractiveness and increased demotivation.

Effects on individuals

A psychosocial burden experienced as intense by the worker is expressed differently from one individual to another.

The five most common types of risk associated with exposure to a high psychosocial workload are: work-related stress, violence at work, psychological and sexual harassment, work-related addictions and burnout.

1. Stress

Work overload, lack of time, lack of autonomy, conflicts between colleagues or with the supervisor are some examples of difficulties that can be encountered during one’s professional activity. The definition of the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work in Bilbao is widely used: “a state of stress occurs when there is an imbalance between a person’s perception of the constraints imposed on them by their environment and their perception of their own resources to cope with them. Although the process of assessing stress and resources is psychological, the effects of stress are not only psychological. They also affect physical health, well-being and productivity.”

2. Violence and aggression

When we talk about violence in the workplace, we must distinguish between violence outside the company (violence or even aggression by customers or users) and violence inside the company (which may be psychological or sexual harassment).

External violence is mainly found in two types of professional activities:

  • in service activities such as public transport, hotels, counter work where contacts are frequent, contacts which can generate tensions or degenerate into conflicts;
  • in activities involving the handling of valuables (banking, jewellery, trade, cash in transit, etc.).

Violence can take many forms, from incivility to verbal aggression to violent acts.

Violence at work is the subject of the agreement on harassment and violence at work signed on 25 June 2009 by the Luxembourg social partners on the basis of a similar framework agreement signed between social partners at European level. This agreement recommends measures for preventing and monitoring acts of violence in the workplace that can be implemented by employers in consultation with staff representatives.

3. Psychological and sexual harassment

The consequences of harassment are often dramatic and sometimes irreversible.

Psychological harassment is another subject of the agreement dated 25 June 2009 on harassment and violence at work signed by the Luxembourg social partners. According to this agreement, “Psychological harassment occurs when a person working in a company commits repeated and deliberate acts that are wrongful against a worker or a manager, the purpose or effect of which is to:

  • to violate the victim’s rights or dignity;
  • alter that person’s working conditions or compromise his professional future by creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment;
  • or alter that person’s physical or mental health”.

Sexual harassment is the subject of the law dated 26 May 2000 on protection against sexual harassment in employment relationships. According to this law, “sexual harassment in the context of labour relations is any behaviour with sexual connotations or any other behaviour based on sex which the perpetrator knows or ought to know affects the dignity of a person, when one of the following conditions is met:

  • the behaviour is unwanted, untimely, abusive and hurtful to the person who is subjected to it;
  • the fact that a person refuses or accepts such conduct on the part of an employer, worker, customer or supplier is used explicitly or implicitly as the basis for a decision affecting that person’s rights in respect of vocational training, employment, job retention, promotion, salary or any other employment-related decision;
  • such conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to it. (the behaviour can be physical, verbal or non-verbal).

The more specific forms of discriminatory harassment (Law dated 28 November 2006) and obsessive harassment (Law dated 5 June 2009 on the phenomenon of “stalking”) are the subject of separate laws which may also be applied in certain cases of harassment at work.

4. Burnout

Burnout is a set of reactions resulting from situations of prolonged professional stress. It is manifested by physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, a profound lack of interest in the content of one’s work and the belittlement of one’s own results. It generally occurs following a significant personal and emotional investment in the professional activity, where suddenly this investment becomes too heavy to bear (but this is not systematic). It was first identified in the helping, caring or training professions (doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, etc.) but it can affect other professions.

5. Addictive behaviours

Addictive behaviours are behaviours of habituation and dependence, which lead to a compulsion to take a substance continuously or periodically, in order to feel its psychic effects and avoid the discomfort of not using it (withdrawal symptom). The products concerned are tobacco, certain drugs, alcohol and psychotropic medications. By consuming the substance, the employee seeks to decompress, to put his problems at a distance, to “suspend” time, to be uninhibited, to concentrate, etc.

Work organisation: the main actuator for prevention

The situations of “stress”, “harassment”, “violence”, “burnout” and “addictive behaviours” at work are not independent of each other. The same organisational or psychosocial factors may be at the root of all five situations. Moreover, one situation may be the cause of one or more other situations (e.g. a work situation featuring high risk of stress favours cases of harassment, and a harassment situation experienced or observed will lead to a state of stress in the victim and those around him).

Moreover, it has been observed that many of the tensions that cause psychosocial problems are not caused by individual problems alone. In general, while the perception of a company’s realities by an employee is a subjective process, the sharing of this perception by several or all employees makes it an objective observation, or even a reality of the company. The subjectivity argument for refusing to accept the findings of psychosocial tensions does not hold water because it seeks to simply ignore the psychosocial reality of an enterprise.

Interventions in the prevention of psychosocial problems at work generally address organizational problems. And while the organization is not necessarily the cause of psychosocial problems at work, it is always part of the solution. The objective of the prevention approach is to reduce tensions and regulate them at this level.

Three levels of prevention to be combined:

Studies on company approaches show that, to be effective, priority should be given to primary prevention actions (actions targeting the causes in the organisation) over secondary prevention actions (actions aimed at employees to “manage” problematic situations) or tertiary prevention actions (actions to support employees in difficulty). However, in many cases, a combination of these three types of action is useful.

A strategic approach to preventing psychosocial problems at work

The prevention of psychosocial problems at work should not be replicated in another organization. It is essential to develop a specific strategy that corresponds to the realities of the organization. In general, there are five steps to be followed in developing a strategic prevention approach.

1. Preparing the process

Before undertaking a prevention approach, it is important to ensure that all the conditions for success are met. These main conditions are:

  • establishing core values and specific objectives to guide the process;
  • the commitment of all partners in the organization: leaders, managers, employees and unions;
  • set up a working group;
  • availability of financial and human resources;
  • the appointment of a strong project manager who can lead a process often considered of secondary importance;
  • the development of a transparent and consensus-based communications plan.

2. Assessing the extent of the problem and identifying risks

In order to support the need for action and to counteract the stigma associated with psychosocial problems, it is essential to be aware of the extent of the problems and to be knowledgeable about the nature of the problems in everyday circumstances. Both of these objectives can be achieved by considering the following:

  • be well informed about individual signals that manifest themselves;
  • obtain and make good use of administrative data to measure the extent of the problem and the “hot spots” in the organization (e.g.: work absence statistics, key performance indicators, turnover rates, insurance costs, number of complaints, etc.);
  • conduct a survey to obtain a detailed picture of the risk factors and their consequences.

3. Identification of specific problems

The next step is to determine the reasons, i.e. the risk factors, for the presence of psychosocial problems in the organisation. It is important to go beyond merely identifying risk factors and to target specific problems. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • develop simple but valid means to better understand the human and organizational causes and consequences of psychological health problems at work (e.g., worker questionnaires, focused group interviews);
  • outline the concrete problems present in the organization;
  • keep in mind that through management and work practices, our behaviours, words or decisions can be risk or protection factors for health.

4. Develop solutions

The search for solutions must be carried out via a specific approach that makes it possible to associate risk factors – specific problems – with solutions. Prevention activities must be tailored to organizational realities rather than using pre-determined approaches. It is also essential to combine primary, secondary and tertiary level interventions. The following points should be considered:

  • determine (jointly with the partners of the organization) the possible areas of intervention and the more difficult or impossible areas of intervention in order not to create expectations that cannot be met;
  • be aware of the need to suit solutions to the organizational context;
  • prioritize and select appropriate solutions;
  • ensure the participation of all partners in the organization in implementing solutions (employees, executives, unions, managers, etc.).

5. Implementing actions and evaluating impacts

The process does not end through the mere identification of solutions; this work must be followed through by establishing precise action plans that allow a transition from solution to action. Evaluating the effects must also be planned at this stage. The aspects to be considered are:

  • establishing a detailed action plan;
  • identification of the criteria for success or failure of the actions to be implemented;
  • developing a monitoring methodology;
  • evaluation of the actions carried out.

This development of the action plan must specify what must be carried out as a priority, for each level of prevention. The actions will then be constructed by jointly defining the sectors concerned, the people responsible for the actions and everything that is part of this type of project management (budget, deadlines, monitoring and evaluation procedures, etc.).