Psychosocial Hazards—Getting Familiar with the Latest Set of Hazards at the Workplace.

Psychosocial Hazards—Getting Familiar with the Latest Set of Hazards at the Workplace.

Workplace hazards have historically been viewed as physical harms, inspiring the communication behind Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) labels that show up on potentially dangerous products like chemicals.  But a new set of identified hazards is poised to move us away from the traditional thinking that sees hazards as being solely physical and toward a more novel way of thinking that sees hazards as having layers to them, thanks to a “psychosocial” lens.

The psychosocial approach is one that every person in the field of people management should get acquainted with because the stakes have never been higher as we transition through the most uncertain period in human history, where automation is going to change what traditional workforces look like.

Psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

The word “psychosocial” refers to the intersection and interaction of social, cultural, and environmental influences on the mind and behavior.  If we use the psychosocial lens to look at hazards, they are things that can cause stress, which can cause a person physical or psychological pain.  So psychosocial hazards can come by the way of work demands, work relationships, job insecurity and organizational changes, and the overall satisfaction a person has with their job.  When a workplace’s psychosocial hazards are allowed to persist, the impact on a person can result in anxiety, fatigue, lack of motivation, depression, anger, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Common ways to identify psychosocial hazards include conducting company-wide surveys, reviewing injury and absence reports, and carrying out general workplace assessments.  Once identified, a review of work organization, work design, working conditions and labour relations, serves as the best starting point for addressing the challenges around psychosocial hazards.  The resulting remedies can be as simple as creating policies around bullying, discrimination, aggressive or violent behavior and other forms of harassment, improving organizational communication, setting out clear expectations, and allowing employees to participate in decision-making and recognizing them for their work.  However, the challenge is that not all psychosocial hazards can be controlled by organizations, including the fluctuating job demands that are the result of a changing external environment, remote and isolated work that is the result of health promoting measures, and a public’s negative opinion of an organization being realized by workers on the frontlines.

With the challenges that are bound to come as a biproduct of technology advancements and automation, combined with traditional challenges along the lines of organizational culture and workforce management, it is important to make the most out of all the lenses available, including the psychosocial lens, to ensure for a thriving workplace.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, a psychosocial hazard for basketball teammates.

Two of the greatest sports professionals of all time, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, reached the pinnacle of their profession despite being what I would describe as psychosocial hazards for their teammates.  For them, the only thing that mattered was winning, above everything and with no exception, and when they came across teammates who did not share their same commitment to their profession, they walked all over them.  Although there is a need for leader toxicity in sports to ensure a “championship or bust” mentality, real-world workplaces will implode from that sort of tension.

When it comes to knowing people, few are better than Simon Sinek, who is famous for his philosophy on how to approach the workplace and how there will never be anything more important than people.  Sinek’s most famous explanation of the importance of people is his breakdown of 100% of all customers being people, 100% of all clients being people, and 100% of all employees being people, and that if you struggle to understand people then you will struggle to understand business.

The idea behind it is that humans are inherently social beings, and our survival has depended on our ability to form trusting relationships.  In the end, if we want to bring out the best in someone, it is important to meet people where they are at and to work with them at their pace, because the learning curve looks different for everyone.  However, a short learning curve is not always indicative of a better performer, and someone with a longer learning curve can go on to outperform those that “made it look easy”, because a solid work ethic and persistence is what wins in the long game.

For those looking to further explore the idea of mental health in the workplace, the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Public Health Ottawa developed a series of short animated videos that raise awareness around thirteen different factors that can impact the mental health of employees, some of which intersect with the psychosocial lens of viewing hazards, and they are accessible through the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website.