Health and safety in the workplace
According to the HSE, Britain’s national regulator of work-related health and safety, it is the duty of an employer to do whatever is reasonably practicable to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workforce. As this falls within the remit of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, businesses failing to comply with such legislation, may be liable to fines, and responsible parties may even face imprisonment.
Despite UK health and safety laws, cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression are on the rise (31% increase in cases from 2019 to 2022), which leaves us wondering: how much do business leaders actually know about their obligation to implement a work-related psychological health and safety policy?
What is psychological health and safety?
Psychological health and safety in the workplace may not come to us as intuitively as physical health and safety does. After all, it is impossible to see (in the literal sense) how a person is feeling about a project, a deadline or working with a certain colleague, but in essence, it refers to the practice of supporting the mental and emotional health of one’s workforce.
This primarily focuses on minimising cases of work-induced stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but can also relate to other employee experiences such as, fear, anger, sadness, discouragement, victimisation, stunted personal/professional development etc. Essentially, anything that may negatively impact the mental and emotional characteristics of an employee, is covered by work-related psychological health and safety.
So, while fulfilling physical health and safety requirements can be as simple as: fixing a broken window; preventing unauthorised personnel from accessing dangerous equipment; or providing essential safety gear, creating and applying an effective psychological health and safety policy might require a more comprehensive and strategic approach. The World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights the importance of supporting employee mental health at work, emphasising that “decent work”, (which is work providing: a livelihood; a sense of confidence, purpose and achievement; an opportunity for positive relationships and inclusion in a community; and a platform for structured routines, among many other benefits), promotes good mental health.
The global movement to support good mental health through decent work practices characterised by organisations like WHO, centralises the need for businesses in the UK (and around the world) to build a comprehensive policy that covers both, the physical and psychological components of health and safety.
The key components of successful psychological health and safety risk assessment
If you subscribe to our weekly newsletter, you’ll know that there are four key elements to a successful psychological risk assessment:
1. Identify what could cause psychological injury or illness in your business (potential hazards).
Identifying potential hazards involves in-depth data collection and research. This is arguably the most important component of carrying out an effective psychological health and safety risk assessment, as it will lay the foundation for the following steps and inform which actions need to take place to either eliminate the risk, or implement the necessary control measures.
At Dharma Centre for Wellbeing, we provide exhaustive resources to guide your business through the process of hazard analysis, but to give you an idea of what potential psychological hazards look like, examples can include: role ambiguity; working far from a support network (i.e. employee’s home); underuse of skills; and misuse of digital surveillance.
2. Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and the severity of possible injury (potential risk).
Once you have created a list of all the potential psychological hazards, you can use that to determine the risks that each hazard might pose, the likelihood of this risk causing harm and the severity of potential harm caused. An example of determining a potential risk for role ambiguity might look like:
Hazard implications: role ambiguity may cause workplace confusion, leading to employee stress and potential conflict.
Severity and likelihood of implications: hazard unlikely with medium potential harm of risk.
Potential risk: low overall potential risk.
3. Take action to eliminate the hazard, or if this isn’t possible, at least put measures in place to control the risk.
For potential high risk areas, an immediate response is essential. However, for our example of role ambiguity, where the potential risk has been categorised as low, a possible response may involve implementing preventative control measures to maintain a reduced possibility of future risk, i.e. managers must carry out quarterly evaluations of employee duties and role descriptions to ensure employees know and understand their responsibilities.
4. Consult with all members of your workforce to ensure adequate communication of psychological hazards and risks, and control measures.
Taking the time to discuss identified psychological hazards and risks with your workforce is essential to encourage worker participation and comprehension of workplace psychological health and safety. All interested parties have some level of responsibility in adhering to the policies in place that protect them from undue psychological harm.
Consulting your workforce about psychological hazards, risks and control measures not only encourages participation and comprehension, but it also provides the opportunity to further explore and identify any hazards that have been overlooked. This step will ultimately contribute to a more comprehensive approach to achieving psychological health and safety at work.
When companies fail to protect their workers
Companies don’t always provide their employees with comprehensive support to prevent them from experiencing psychological ill health.
Unfortunately, this happens more often than it should, with businesses that fail to uphold adequate standards of psychological health and safety in the workplace facing severe consequences. Walker v Northumberland County Council (1994), Barber v Somerset County Council  and Green vs Deutsche Bank (2006) are just three cases where employees successfully prosecuted their employers for psychological ill health resulting from psychologically harmful working conditions.
The compensation that each company had to pay for neglecting to protect their employees from psychological harm ranged from £100,000 to £850,000. For many businesses, this is a considerably large sum, but when you consider the impact that prolonged distress resulting from a lack of basic company care and support can have on an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing, it’s a fair price to pay.
Being able to take risks with your business is sometimes the best way to achieve results
However, compromising the safety and welfare of your employees is never a good idea. The psychological impact of unchecked hazards and uncontrolled risks has the capacity to irrevocably damage a person’s life, let alone incur substantial fees in compensation.
Take action to guarantee that your business is abiding by its legal obligation of care for the psychological health, safety and welfare of its employees. Find out more about our consultation and training services to prevent your business from risking the welfare of those working to build its success.