Studies have long shown that exposure to psychosocial risks in the workplace can impact the mental health of the worker and increase the risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Despite that fact, psychosocial risk factors are some of the most overlooked contributors to pain and discomfort in the workplace. To my fellow Ergonomics Consultants, do you consider the psychosocial work environment when conducting ergonomics assessments? 

In this post, I have hot-off-the-presses research that I want to share with you. I’ll be talking about using a comprehensive approach to assess the psychosocial work environment, as well as opportunities to leverage this information to serve your communities. I’ll also show you what psychosocial factors are the best place to target FIRST so that you can limit confusion and get more of those sought-after results for your clients. Make sure to stick until the end for the bonus tip!

A Growing Challenge in the Workplace

Psychosocial challenges in the workplace have been present long before the pandemic. However, the shift in work arrangements and conditions during the pandemic brought new psychosocial issues for the health and well-being of employees. Many workers were required to work under pressure for longer periods with increased workloads and fewer breaks. In addition, workers were confronted with fear of job loss and lack of social and emotional support from co-workers and family due to lockdown and physical distancing. The pandemic not only heightened the risk of musculoskeletal injuries, but it also led many employees to reconsider their priorities. In fact, workers quit their jobs in record numbers last year to look for better pay, balance, and flexibility in their work. Economists called it the “Great Resignation.” 

Right now, many employers are still scrambling to find and retain well-fit employees. In today’s changing work environment, how companies manage workers’ well-being will greatly affect their productivity and retention. As Ergonomic Consultants, we can help these organizations prevent injuries and stem the Great Resignation. And a great way to position our services in a way that will address their concerns is by taking a closer look at the psychosocial work environment.

What are psychosocial risk factors?

Since musculoskeletal disorders are, by definition, physical aliments, in the rush of ergonomics assessments, many of us will identify only the physical risk factors. Physical risks including force, posture, repetition, poor work practices, poor fitness, and poor health habits do have a direct relationship to injury and discomfort. However, there are also other factors that contribute to work-related injuries. One major player in injury development that’s often overlooked is psychosocial risk factors - that is unless it is explicitly stated as an objective of the ergonomics assessment (hey - we are all very busy people, right?).

Psychosocial factors refer to the issues that may impact how the worker interacts with the demands of their job and their work environment, including social contacts with supervisors and co-workers within their job. Some jobs aren’t designed properly, and this may lead to psychosocial risks. Here are some examples of psychosocial risk factors being present at work:

  • Limited rest opportunity;
  • Workload and work pace;
  • Repetitive, monotonous tasks;
  • Job demands and mental load;
  • Lack of social support;
  • High levels of effort are not balanced by adequate reward; and
  • Job uncertainty

Why we need to address psychosocial risk factors

Psychosocial risk factors must also be taken into account because if they’re present in the workplace, they can be the cause of stress, and can accelerate the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Many scientific articles reported positive results when psychosocial risk factors were improved and incorporated in the MSD reduction program. This is particularly significant if you're working with a client who has a wellness program.

For instance, even if you implement ergonomics assessments or improve the individual risk factors, musculoskeletal disorders and discomfort will still occur if you don’t include the psychosocial risk factors present in that workplace. This is because work-related stressors can negatively affect the worker’s mental and physical health. So, in theory, all risk factors need to be appropriately assessed and managed in order for organizations to have a successful wellness program. 

This research shows the value of looking at the holistic view of the psychosocial work environment. The research determined self-reported burnout, stress, and cognitive strain as indicators of poor psychosocial work factors. One intriguing finding from this article was that individuals who report experiencing both job strain and effort-reward imbalance at work exhibit higher levels of mental health problems than individuals who are exposed to one of these factors alone. 

These researchers also come up with an interesting ongoing discussion relating to the role of stress buffers in the workplace, which I think will lead to other ergonomics research.

They stated that psychosocial resources have been shown to buffer the impact of job stressors with the strongest interactions observed among individuals who experienced the greatest levels of stress. 

Researchers also provide some suggestive evidence that increasing the levels of job control and meaning, co-worker support, supervisor support, and justice, trust, and rewards is strongly and linearly associated with more favorable mental health outcomes.

How to mitigate existing psychosocial risks

There's big value in assessing the psychosocial risk factors present in the workplace in addition to managing the physical risks. There are a number of ways to manage psychosocial risk factors, and therefore improve employee well-being and retain workers. And of course, I’m aware that we don't have an endless amount of budget and resources to address all the psychosocial concerns. So to ensure an efficient management of psychosocial risks, it’s important to know where to focus your attention. 

There’s an order of risk factors that you need to be aware of so that you’re not wasting your time on less effective psychosocial risk factors. The best place to start according to the researchers is to focus on the supervisor support and justice, trust, and rewards dimensions. Given their finding that psychosocial work exposures are highly interrelated at the individual level, structural interventions aimed at enhancing contextual (or workplace-level) factors may present a particularly effective approach for addressing the psychosocial work environment as a whole. 

Additionally, researchers revealed that structural interventions aimed at addressing upstream factors, such as leadership quality and broader organizational processes, stand the best chance of improving psychosocial job quality and promoting workplace mental health because of the number of effects they have on a wide range of downstream job conditions.

And that’s it. With the changing work environment, I think this research is so relevant. If you’re an Ergonomics Consultant, targeting those structural interventions that I mentioned will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

If those structural interventions don't fall within your scope as a healthcare professional, what I can suggest is to partner with someone that has expertise in that area so you can leverage that information into the services that you offer.

So what do you think? Are you surprised by these findings related to psychosocial risk factors? 

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