Psychosocial hazards are defined by the International Labour Association (ILO, 1986) as the “interactions between and among work environment, job content, organizational conditions and workers’ capacities, needs, culture, personal extra-job considerations that may, through perceptions and experience, influence health, work performance and job satisfaction”.

In simpler terms, psychosocial hazards are factors in the workplace that can cause stress and lead to psychological or physical harm. Common examples might include job demands, poor supervision or poor workplace relationships.

How psychosocial hazards harm employee health and wellbeing
Psychosocial hazards can result in stress to your employees. Stress is the response an employee has when the perceived demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. Stress is a normal reaction and feeling stressed can be healthy and helpful as it can help to motivate us into action. However, frequent, severe, or prolonged exposure to stress can result in psychological or physical harm.

When our bodies sense or detect a threat, our fight or flight response kicks in and activates a series of physiological and cognitive changes to helps us to navigate the threat or challenge at hand. This ‘stress response’ is designed to be short-term. When this response is prolonged and our bodies are in a constant state of stress, it can take a huge toll on both our physical and mental health, impacting every system within our bodies. Prolonged stress has been linked to many serious health complications including:

  • mental health problems such as anxiety and depression,
  • serious heart problems,
  • sleeping disorders,
  • breathing difficulties and panic attacks,
  • increased risk of type 2 diabetes,
  • fertility problems in both men and women,
  • migraines and musculoskeletal disorders,
  • weakened immune system, and
  • skin and hair conditions such as hair loss and acne.

The difference between burnout and stress
Burnout is the consequence of the interplay between an individual’s predisposing factors and vulnerabilities, with the prolonged exposure to psychosocial hazards. It is a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion as a result of chronic stress over a long period of time.

While burnout is not a medical condition, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as an “occupational phenomenon” in the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11). In the ICD-11, the WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and lists the following symptoms:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Due to the chronicity of burnout, when it goes unmanaged, it can result in many of the health complications listed above.

How do I know if my employees are ‘burning out’?
Building awareness, identifying stressors and intervening early can help. Indications that an employee may be burning out may include:

  • Changes to their mood or more variation in their mood than usual
  • Changes in how they are interacting with co-workers, management, customers or clients (e.g., more irritable, impatient or angry)
  • Changes to their presentation (e.g., do they seem consistently tired or lacking energy, are they struggling to focus and concentrate, are they taking more sick days than usual?)
  • Changes to their work quality and performance (e.g., taking longer than usual to complete tasks, a significant drop consistently in quality, contributing less than usual)
  • Changes to their language and beliefs about their role or workplace (e.g., critical, cynical, disillusioned, reporting consistently that they are struggling with their workload or time pressures)

Preventing psychological harm
Managing the psychological wellbeing of employees goes beyond self-care and wellbeing days. It requires a multi-faceted and nuanced approach that considers work factors, stress management, and personality style.  One intervention will not address the psychological needs of the entire workforce. A starting point may include:

  • Identifying psychosocial hazards within the workplace with clear plans for how these are eliminated, minimised or managed
  • Creating optimal work conditions that allow employees to flourish, gain recognition, foster meaning, participate in training, development and upskilling
  • Leaders who bring the human factor into leadership, who are trained to lead with the brain in mind and are aware of how to foster a climate of psychological health and safety.
  • Building and maintaining a workplace culture that adopts and lives the organisational values and walks the talk.
  • Providing mechanisms to help your employees identify stressors and gain support from leaders on ways to manage them
  • Establishing systems to address wellbeing concerns and mental health in a safe way, as well as providing opportunities to enhance wellbeing, mental health awareness, stress management and resiliency-based skills.‍