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Managing Psychosocial Risks

We are beginning to see a change in the focus of efforts by safety & health practitioners. In the past, the main area for interest and action was to reduce the risks of workplace injury through, initially, physical control measures but more recently by addressing behavioural and motivational issues. Later we saw the emphasis shift as the relative frequency of occupational health problems was appreciated. Now the issue of psychosocial risks is rapidly moving up the agenda. These are the risks such as workplace stress, harassment and bullying, which for too long were hidden by a smokescreen of ignorance, embarrassment and failure to understand.

This has not been something which has suddenly appeared on the health and safety radar; several years ago the International Labour Organisation (ILO) launched a programme called SOLVE , which aimed to promote awareness of these issues in the workplace. More recently a report from the EU OSHA programme on new and emerging risks, ESENER, looked at the drivers and barriers for integrating psychosocial risk management into occupation health and safety management systems. Interestingly much of this survey made use of research carried out in the UK, by Prof. Tom Cox & Prof. Amanda Griffiths of Nottingham University over the last 20 years. This report will, hopefully, raise the awareness on this area of risk which accounts for approximately 105 million working days lost each year in the UK (HSE, 2012) at a cost of ~£1.24 billion per annum. To further illustrate the scale of the problem in the UK HSE estimates that 1 in 7 of the working population find their work very or extremely stressful and approximately 20% of the population have reported depression or anxiety to their GP.

It is recognised that a certain level of stress is required to optimise employees’ performance. However this level varies significantly between individuals and it is often difficult for managers to recognise when an employee is at risk. The case of Walker v. Northumberland County Council 1995 ruled that an employer cannot always be expected to know when this occurs but when they are aware they must take action to reduce the risk. Also we are required to be proactive and assess the risks of workplace stress and other psychosocial risks.

The IIRSM is currently planning a programme in association with Cardinus Risk Management Ltd. to address ways of helping organisations manage the risks to their employees. The programme will aim to help managers within businesses and the public sector to recognise when their employees may be under pressure which could ultimately lead to stress related illness. To help us with our planning we will be carrying out a survey and would hope that if you are contacted, you will be happy to respond.

Barry Holt, Director of Policy & Research, IIRSM


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