Equal treatment for equal risk
All work is not equal. There is ‘good work’, which is well designed, organised and managed and protective of mental wellbeing. On the other hand, there is work that is toxic, containing one or more factors that significantly harm wellbeing.
Wellbeing is a person’s ongoing state that allows them to thrive or not. It is just like physical health – we all have it. It is on a continuum, ranging from people thriving or going ok to people struggling and being unwell.
Thriving is related to a person feeling and functioning well across multiple areas of their life. Thriving is associated with ‘good work’ and mental harm with ‘toxic work’. Aspects of work that harm or impair mental wellbeing are commonly referred to as psychosocial risks, but it may be more helpful to refer to psychosocial risks simply as risks to mental wellbeing.
These risks can cause mental harm. The harm can be acute or chronic, can result from a single or repeated exposure to risk(s) factors and can range from mild psychological difficulties to severe psychological disorders eg, depression, anxiety.
WorkSafe NZ’s Segmentation and Insights Programme Research (2019) found that in the last 12 months, 20% of respondents had experienced depression, 31% anxiety, and 60% stress. The New Zealand Workplace Barometer (2020) reported that 70% of respondents reported an absence from work during the last 12 months due to ‘physical or mental health’.
Not a single risk
Though there are a wide range of risks that can affect mental wellbeing at work, they are often referred to as a single risk. This is different to how risks to physical safety are viewed. In the physical safety arena, we identify risks associated with hazards, such as confined spaces or working at heights. Yet when assessing risks to mental wellbeing, the risk is referred to as ‘psychosocial risk’, with little or no attempt to identify the wide range of known factors that have a harmful impact on mental wellbeing, such as excessive workload, lack of control, inflexible work schedules, unsupportive managers, bullying and discrimination.
These are distinctly different and should not be treated as a single risk.
We need to stop listing psychosocial risks or wellbeing risks on critical risk registers as if they were a single entity. If we are going to protect the wellbeing of workers, the risks to wellbeing need to be identified as thoroughly as are risks to physical safety.
The assumption behind most physical safety and health risk assessments is that risks are measurable, observable and can be objectively managed. Risks to mental wellbeing are different. They are subjective, seldom directly observable, and have unclear definitive solutions.
As a result, they are sometimes referred to as ‘wicked’ challenges. Some of the key challenges to managing risks to wellbeing include:
- A lack of understanding of, and risks to, mental wellbeing.
- Managers and workers view the risks to mental wellbeing at work differently.
- People identifying the risks are not involved in developing the solutions or having the authority to implement the changes.
- Workers fearful that their confidentiality will be compromised and that any subsequent changes to the work may result in redundancies.
- Senior leaders’ reluctance to engage in meaningful work design due to concerns that interventions will be expensive.
Obligation and opportunity
Preventing harm – physical and mental – is our obligation, while designing work so people thrive is the opportunity. Let’s start by treating risks to wellbeing as we do risks to physical safety – not as a single risk but as a wide range of factors related to the way work is designed, organised and managed.
Here are some questions to reflect on:
- Are the risks to wellbeing in your organisation referred to as a risk or a set of risks?
- Have the risks that will significantly harm wellbeing been identified? How and who was involved?
- Have the different risks to wellbeing across different parts of the organisation been identified?
- What are the challenges to assessing mental wellbeing risks in your organisation?
To explore these issues further, see the Business Leaders H&S Forum’s guidance on protecting wellbeing, due out in February 2021.
Dr Hillary Bennett is a director of Leading Safety.