Psychosocial hazards (including stress)

Various definitions have been given to the term ‘psychosocial hazards’, such as the following:

  • “… interactions between and among work environment, job content, organisational conditions and workers’ capacities, needs, culture, personal extra-job considerations that may, through perceptions and experience influence health, work performance and job satisfaction”
  • “… aspects of the work environment and the way that work is organised that are associated with a negative impact on mental health and/or physical injury or illness. When psychosocial hazards are not effectively managed, they can negatively impact on organisational measures including productivity, absenteeism and turnover.”

More simply, psychosocial hazards are: “those aspects of the design and management of work, and its social and organisational contexts that have the potential for causing psychological or physical harm”.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive explained in 2006 the impact that psychosocial risk factors have on ‘frame of mind’ and the potentially higher incidences of practising unsafe behaviours in the workplace.

‘Psychosocial’ refers to the inter-relationships between individuals’ thoughts and behaviours and their social environment.

This term can be interpreted differently outside of the OSH world and can often refer to social environments such as family, socio-economic status and level of education. In the OSH field, psychosocial hazards refer only to hazards created by work and the work environment.

Work-related stress is the most common pathway from poorly managed psychosocial risk to ill-health.

Emerging psychosocial hazards

An emerging OSH risk is any occupational risk that is both new and increasing.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work set up the European Risk Observatory, which identified and explored emerging OSH risks by carrying out a survey and analysing scientific literature.

The 10 most important emerging psychosocial risks identified in the survey were divided into five categories as follows:

  • new forms of employment
  • contracts and job insecurity
  • OSH risks for the ageing workforce
  • work intensification
  • high emotional demands at work
  • poor work–life balance.

Although the issues above may not be new to the workforce, analysing them as occupational risks is a recent development.

What’s the issue?

Psychosocial hazards including work-related stress are referred to indirectly in many national legal frameworks, but very few countries have specific laws which deal with these hazards in the workplace.

The concept of ‘psychosocial hazards’ is difficult to understand as they represent workers’ perceptions and experiences, reflecting many considerations in the work environment.

Psychosocial hazards are a major occupational health concern and are associated with serious economic implications for society and all types of organisations, irrespective of size and sector. Organisations can manage psychosocial hazards proactively, using the same methods already used to manage OSH.

There is a wealth of terminology used around psychosocial hazards:

Terminology Translation/meaning Source
Psychologically healthy and safe workplace A workplace that promotes workers’ psychological wellbeing and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless or intentional ways National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace
Psychosocial Relating to the interaction between social and psychological factors Dictionary.com
Psychosocial hazard An occupational hazard that affects the psychosocial wellbeing of workers, including their ability to participate with other people in a work environment. Definitions.net
Psychosocial risk The likelihood of factors arising from poor work design, organisation and management, combined with poor social context of work, that could result in a negative effect on workers’ health including psychological, physical or social issues such as work-related stress, depression and burnout. IOSH
Psychosocial risk factors Organisational factors that have an impact on the psychological safety and health of workers. These factors include the way work is carried out and the context in which work occurs. Psychosocial risk factors can affect workers’ mental responses to work and cause mental health problems. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Psychosocial risk management system An applied method to reduce the impacts of risks to psychosocial hazards in the workplace. IOSH
Psychosocial safety climate Psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is defined as shared perceptions of organisational policies, practices and procedures for the protection of worker psychological health and safety, that stem largely from management practices. PSC theory extends the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) framework and proposes that organisation-level PSC determines work conditions and subsequently, psychological health problems and work engagement
National Library of Medicine


When working conditions and human factors are all in balance, work can create a feeling of:

  • mastery
  • self-confidence
  • motivation
  • satisfaction or fulfilment
  • physically and mentally fitness and health.

Psychosocial hazards or factors are aspects in the design or management of work that increase the risk of an adverse impact leading to work-related stress, exacerbated non-work-related stress or affect individual workers’ health and wellbeing.

A stress response is a physical, mental and emotional reaction that occurs when a worker’s perceptions of the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. It’s important to remember that stress itself does not constitute a physical or psychological injury.

Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards, some of which are always present, while others only occasionally. The terms ‘psychosocial hazard’ and ‘psychosocial risk’ are sometimes used interchangeably, and stress is often defined as a psychosocial hazard rather than a consequence of the hazard.

In the OSH profession a hazard is the potential for an agent, process or situation to cause harm or negative health effects to a person at work. Risk is the likelihood or probability that a person will be harmed or experience negative health effects if exposed to a hazard.

Psychosocial hazards are aspects of work (eg, lack of autonomy, long working hours) which can affect workers’ emotions, behaviours, biochemical and neuro-hormonal reactions. The risk is the likelihood or probability that a person will be harmed or experience negative physical or mental health effects from being exposed to a psychosocial hazard.

The relationship between hazard and risk is exposure, whether immediate or long-term. In this context, it includes both physical and psychological outcomes.