Psychological Safety vs. Psychosocial Risk

Adopting a systems perspective to understanding psychosocial risk factors in the workplace.

The modern workplace is becoming increasingly stressful for many people and is characterised by factors such as high workloads, employees being bombarded with emails, texts, and calls, people rushing from one meeting to the next, and poor work/life balance with mobile phones glued to our hands. Is your organisation adopting the right strategies that are truly effective at reducing stress and increasing wellbeing of all employees?

Psychosocial risk factors are associated with the way individuals react to the demands of their job and their work environment. Common workplace psychosocial risk factors include: high work demands, job control, co-worker support, quality of leadership, role clarity, management feedback, and recognition and acknowledgment.

How do many organisations currently deal with these psychosocial risk factors?

In our experience, many organisations take a reactive approach to dealing with these issues. For example, they will set up an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to enable stressed employees to seek counselling support anonymously; they will run courses on resilience and stress management for employees; they will buy weekly fruit bowls to encourage healthy eating and encourage personal ownership of employee wellbeing. Whilst sometimes helpful to individuals, these reactive approaches to managing stress and psychosocial risks are usually very ineffective in the longer term and only provide Band-Aid solutions.

What should HR Leaders do?

Instead of taking a reactive approach to psychological and psychosocial safety, HR Leaders should take a systems approach. A systems approach focuses on primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention. Primary prevention strategies represent a more sustainable, long-term approach to stress. Primary strategies involve implementing more enduring, organisational-level strategies that address stressors at their source, for example, targeting elements of the psychosocial working environment.

A systems approach to job stress prevention involves implementing activities to identify and address stressors at their source (i.e., primary preventative, organisational level strategies) alongside activities that help employees to manage stress (i.e., secondary preventive, individual level strategies) or to recover/ rehabilitate from stress-related illnesses (i.e., tertiary level prevention). System approaches require a great deal of support and participation from members of an organisation and are tailored very specifically to the organisation’s specific needs and context.

How can you implement a systems approach to increasing well-being and reducing stress?

There are a number of steps you can take and each depends on a range of factors including your organisation’s culture, history, leadership and business and financial circumstances. However, a typical systems-based intervention would begin with some kind of audit of the current situation.

Steople recommends using a survey approach to understanding causal factors behind stress and well-being. You may also like to collect further data through the use of interviews and focus groups as well as gathering data on issues such as absenteeism, turnover, and Work-Cover claims.

You may next want to consider running an action planning workshop with key stakeholders and decision-makers to put a comprehensive 3-5-year strategy together. This strategy and action plan should identify the top 5-6 things that the organisation can do to improve well-being and reduce workplace stress, whilst also building sustainable business performance.

The strategies should be implemented over time with a disciplined project management methodology, with review periods built in. Amongst other initiatives, we strongly believe that leadership development should be a critical part of your plan. We know that roughly 70% of culture is about the daily behaviours of leaders and therefore a program to create a culture of well-being needs to include all people leaders.

Finally, the program should be monitored and evaluated for its success and modified along the way to cope with various changes that take place within the business throughout the program.

Why is this important and why should you invest in all this work?

There has been an estimation of 3.5 million Australians having mild to moderate mental health issues. Poor mental health costs the Australian economy around $70 billion every year, as estimated by the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Mental health (2020). In the context of the workplace, the Productivity Commission approximates expenses ranging from $12.2 billion to $39.9 billion annually attributed to diminished productivity and reduced engagement. Mental health issues and poor physical health contribute to decreased levels of workplace involvement, heightened absenteeism rates, and ‘presenteeism’ – wherein employees show up for work but perform at suboptimal levels.

If you are an HR Leader and any of this resonates with you, we encourage you to use the information in this article to begin socialising the need to take a systems approach to your actions to make a real and positive difference to the well-being of your organisation.

Speak to a Steople wellbeing specialist today and further develop your systems approach to psychological and psychosocial wellbeing.