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Psychosocial risk assessment

Thresholds for psychosocial risks at work

The working world is shaped by constant change. Psychosocial stress due to pressure to succeed or disruptions in the workplace is widespread. Mental disorders such as fatigue-induced depression are on the rise. That said, gainful employment also has a positive impact on health: autonomy and appreciation at work help to keep the negative effects of stress at bay. The way an organisation designs its working conditions determines whether the impact on employee health is largely positive or largely negative.

Against this background, companies in the European Union are required to conduct risk assessments of psychological strain and to monitor the need for action. In Switzerland, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, with the support of social partners and the Interkantonaler Verband für Arbeitnehmerschutz (IVA – the intercantonal association devoted to safeguarding workers' occupational health), launched an enforcement priority in 2014 to strengthen the prevention of psychosocial risks in organisations.

Need for research into quantifiable parameters

Practically implementing risk assessments of this nature poses challenges that highlight the need for research. Where psychological strain is concerned, for instance, no parameters or thresholds exist for assessing its severity. In contrast to physical hazards such as noise or toxic gases, it is still necessary to clarify to what extent remedial action is needed when certain measured values are exceeded (e.g. the number of distracting interruptions caused by incoming emails, telephone calls, or the conversations of others in the office). Companies need information based on scientifically quantifiable parameters so that they can quickly identify those hazards that require intervention and initiate appropriate remedial action.

Just looking at the individual stressors (e.g. interruptions, time pressure, or role ambiguity) in isolation will not produce serious answers. Rather, it is important to understand how the stressors interact – for example whether time pressure only becomes a critical factor if, at the same time, there is little social support in the team and from management. Clarification is also needed around the extent to which critical workload combinations in production and office situations are a salient factor – or whether thresholds differ according to activity and sector.

Efficient risk assessment

The aim of the collaborative project involving a number of national and international organisations is to gain new insights into how far a need for remedial action can be identified in organisations and in certain types of work. Increased scientific knowledge about thresholds should lead to new, improved risk analysis methods capable of facilitating efficient implementations of psychosocial risk assessments. Then, these can also be deployed in other organisations.

In an initial phase from 2015 to 2018, the aircraft manufacturer Airbus collaborated with Prof. Jan Dettmers of the FernUniversität in Hagen to develop and validate a procedure for determining quantifiable parameters. The next phase (2019 to 2022) is examining whether this procedure can be transferred to other companies in the manufacturing (e.g. Festo) and service (e.g. IBM) sectors and thus be made available as valid procedure for further companies. In Switzerland, the FHNW School of Applied Psychology is collaborating to this end with a number of organisations, including a cantonal administration, and transferring the findings gained from the international collaboration to Swiss organisations.

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