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Introducing Safety Psychology into the Workplace

March 7, 2024

The following is based on an article written by our colleague James Hayton for the HSI Magazine

In the world of safety, we tend to focus on the physical harms that could impact our staff, customers, or wider public.  However, it has traditionally been less common to see businesses considering the non-physical psychological harms, and rarely in a proactive way.  The introduction of wellbeing into Health and Safety has increased awareness greatly, and the term ‘Psycho-Social Hazard’ is growing in popularity.  For those of you not familiar with the term this article will explain what it is and also some of the reasons why psychosocial hazards are not always immediately visible and what we can do to improve that situation.

Psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are those things in the workplace that can affect workers' psychological response to their work and working conditions.  Examples of psychosocial hazards are things like feelings of insufficient time to complete their work, excessive workload, or having difficult interactions with colleagues and managers, etc.  These hazards will affect an individuals’ performance, they increase stress, ill health, frequently increase absence, and in some chronic cases they can lead to staff retention and /or recruitment problems.  To compound the issue, the emotional response psychosocial hazards foster in employees, such as embarrassment, anger, and frustration become additional internal workload for the member of staff to deal with on top of their already overwhelming workload.  Because they are overwhelmed or distracted staff are then more likely to make unintentional errors, and mistakes.  They can also be more inclined to break the rules and shortcut processes not for malicious reasons but simply to get the work done and meet that deadline, or appease their boss, etc.  The Keil Centre’s Richard Scaife and Chiara Amati led some of the original research into this that can be found here:

Unfortunately, these unintentional errors and intentional process violations often go unnoticed and lie in wait for an unsuspecting colleague or customer at a later date.  If they are identified quickly before physical harm happens, they may still require rework, or scrappage, etc.  Assessing the impact of the errors caused by psychosocial hazards shows us a wealth of factors that cost businesses money and lost time.  What’s more many of these psychosocial factors are easily preventable if only we acknowledged and addressed them. In recent years awareness of psychosocial hazards has become more prominent, so more people are looking out for them.  But different people’s responses to hazards can vary enormously.  What one person finds stressful may be water off a duck’s back to another.

So being aware of the potential psychosocial hazards in the workplace is extremely helpful for employers so that they can proactively address potential issues before they become a problem.  As managers and leaders, we cannot possibly see all the potential psychosocial hazards in the workplace, partly because we don’t have the time to be everywhere all the time, but also because what may be a significant psychosocial hazard to the employee may not be for us, therefore, we simply don’t see it as a problem.  To identify these hazards effectively we need to empower the workforce to speak up about those factors affecting them and their productivity.  Of course, we all know a few employees who will never hesitate to tell you all their woes, but that is not true for everybody; in fact the default for most staff is to plod on regardless and don’t rock the boat.

Therefore, it is useful to think about the reasons why staff might not want to speak up.  E.g. the trainee that feels ignorant so doesn’t mention the written procedure that doesn’t make sense, or the manager that has doubts about a project which nobody else appears to be voicing so keeps their mouth shut for fear of appearing negative.  Or the supervisor that has raised concerns about equipment problems but has been ignored or dismissed in the past.  It’s helpful to understand and address the causes of this reticent behaviour, so that the business can build a climate in which staff feel comfortable talking about their concerns and issues.

There are 2 closely related and overlapping psychological concepts that can help, they are Psychological Safety and Just Culture.  Find out more about Psychological Safety here and look out for an article soon on the concepts of Just Culture.

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