Common factors

Common psychosocial factors

Work demands: A work demand may be a positive or negative experience, depending on the individual’s ability to cope with them, as well as the level of support provided by the organisation to help them manage the demands.

The ability to cope with demands can be affected by external factors such as bereavement, relationship breakdown or illness. If work demands are imagined as being liquid in a bottle, the work demands may fill the bottle. If nothing else is added, the worker can cope. However, if something is added, then the bottle overflows. Work demands should always allow room for other demands without causing the bottle to overflow.

Work demands that could result in a negative experience can be categorised into several categories:

  • quantitative demands – time pressure or the amount of work
  • cognitive demands – affect primarily the brain processes involved in processing information; the demands can be made more difficult by work equipment, workload, pace and inadequate work resources to carry out the work
  • emotional demands – primarily associated with the effort needed to deal with organisationally desired emotions during interpersonal
  • transactions (for example, the pressure to respond in a particular way when smiled at by a stranger in the street)
  • physical demands – primarily associated with the musculoskeletal system
  • organisational demands – culture, structure of communication, organisational principles and priorities, and leadership style.

Organisations should liaise with workers and listen to any of their concerns regarding work pressures to reduce negative feelings and experiences. By listening to workers, this will also have a positive impact on them as they will feel valued within the organisation, especially if they feel the organisation is making improvements following their concerns.

Organisational improvement of negative job demands

  • improve time management and work flow
  • ensure adequate breaks and recreation time
  • avoid unrealistic deadlines
  • substitute heavy manual tasks with machinery to reduce physical workload
  • avoid encouraging workers to work regularly for long hours
  • monitor shift patterns and working overtime.

Job insecurity, organisational change and restructuring: All organisations at some point undergo change. Whether change is positive or negative, it may increase pressure and instability on workers, creating anxiety and concern over job security. Job insecurity can:

  • have a negative impact on job satisfaction
  • increase the likelihood of reporting negative mental ill health
  • lower the likelihood of reporting absenteeism
  • increase levels of presenteeism.

Factors which can affect workers include:

  • a lack of permanent contracts
  • a lack of guaranteed hours
  • high unemployment rates
  • an economic downturn
  • the introduction of new technologies
  • a lack of career prospects
  • poorly managed change
  • poorly communicated change
  • a lack of prospects for promotion or career development.

Organisational initiatives for managing change:

  • focus on clarity and objectives around work expectations
  • provide feedback on development to workers be transparent and fair regarding organisational processes and procedures

Relationships at work: The sense of belonging and social cohesion that is created by work relationships is an important aspect of psychological health. Where this breaks down or is not present, it can lead to negative health outcomes.

Relationships at work are affected by:

  • social or physical isolation
  • poor relationships with superiors, colleagues and staff members
  • interpersonal conflict
  • lack of social support
  • bullying
  • harassment
  • Role-related factors affecting health include:
  • role ambiguity
  • role conflict
  • responsibility for people
  • low participation in decision-making
  • lack of control over workload
  • perceived lack of work–life balance.

Work–life balance is about individuals feeling they have a good balance between the demands of work and time to spend on other, non-work-related activities that they wish to pursue. It is not a static thing and will change for individuals over time and will mean different things to different people. What might have been relevant for a worker aged 25 might not necessarily meet their needs when they are 35 or 55 years old.

Anyone in an organisation can become bullied or harassed. It might be difficult to identify if someone is being treated in this way. People who are the targets of bullying may experience a range of effects such as:

  • shock
  • anger
  • feelings of frustration and/or helplessness
  • increased sense of vulnerability
  • loss of confidence
  • physical symptoms such as inability to sleep and loss of appetite
  • psychosomatic symptoms such as stomach pains and headaches
  • panic or anxiety, especially about going to work
  • family tension and stress
  • inability to concentrate
  • low morale and productivity.

Initiatives for managing relationships at work

At an individual level:

  • encourage workers to report incidents such as inappropriate comments and behaviours to their line manager or human resources department.

At an organisational level:

  • investigate any complaints concerning harassment at work and take appropriate measures
  • establish a policy of zero tolerance of bullying
  • carry out a risk assessment
  • establish a reporting system and procedure and ensure workers are aware of the process
  • train managers in conflict management
  • provide managers with advice and assistance in handling difficult absence issues.

Work-related violence and trauma: Work-related violence is a workplace incident involving exposure to abuse, the threat of, or actual, harm that causes fear and distress and can lead to stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or physical injury. This includes adverse social behaviours (workplace bullying and harassment) and third party violence such as patients or customers attacking workers.

It is common among groups that are public- or customer-facing, as well as first responders, disaster and emergency services and defence personnel. Violence can include:

  • robbery
  • physical or verbal assault
  • being bitten, spat at or scratched or kicked
  • being threatened with a weapon
  • being followed
  • threatened
  • damage to vehicles
  • sexual assault
  • witnessing abuse or violence
  • witnessing traumatic scenes – for example, accidents and suicide.

Those who work with people who may have mental ill health disorders or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be at increased risk of violence.

The work environment can trigger negative behaviour which can contribute to the development of bullying, harassment and violence. This can be due to any of the hazards mentioned or circumstances such as a poor social environment or competition between workers in the workplace.

Organisations can adopt initiatives to manage work-related violence.

Initiatives on work-related violence: 

  • a response system to address immediate safety issues
  • arrangements for medical treatment such as a first aider or information on how to contact the emergency services
  • ensure workers know how to report and notify external agencies such as the police
  • put incident management policies and procedures in place and ensure they are implemented
  • consult with other teams in the organisation such as human resources, facilities, security and any workers who are likely to be directly affected by work-related violence on policies and procedures regarding incident management
  • prepare and communicate emergency and evacuation plans, providing training in the form of
  • practice drills to ensure workers are aware of the procedures.

IOSH has funded research into the impact of unacceptable behaviour on health and wellbeing at work and the workplace behaviour study.