What is psychosocial risk?

The term “psychosocial hazard” as defined by WorkSafe “refers to the aspects of design and management of work and its social organisational contexts that may have the potential for causing psychological or physical harm”. 1 Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards to differing extents or frequency, depending on the nature of their work and workplace environment. When psychosocial risks combine and increase the overall risk there is a greater instance of work-related stress and negative implications for workers.

These risks can stem from how the tasks or jobs are designed, organised, managed and supervised and tasks or jobs with inherent psychosocial hazards and risks. Other factors include the equipment, working environment or requirements to undertake duties in physically hazardous environments as well as social factors at work, workplace relationships and social interactions.

What are the most common psychosocial risks and how can it harm workers?

While the term “psychosocial” is not explicitly referred to in this legislation, it has been included as a key focus area in the Healthy Work Strategic Plan 2016–2026.2 WorkSafe identified several psychosocial risk factors that can arise in the workplace1. These risk factors include:

  • Job contents/demands – High physical, mental and or emotional demands, lack of variety, short work cycles, fragmented or meaningless work, underutilisation, high uncertainty, continuous exposure to people through work
  • Workload/workplace – Work overload or underload, machine pacing time pressure, deadlines
  • Work schedule – Shift working, inflexible work schedules, unpredictable hours, long or unsocial hours
  • Job control – Low participation in decision-making, lack of control over workloads
  • Physical environment and equipment issues – Inadequate or faulty equipment, poor environmental conditions (space, light, noise, thermal)
  • Organisational culture and function – Poor communications, low levels of support for problem-solving and personal development, lack of definition of organisational objectives
  • Interpersonal relationships at work – Social or physical isolation, poor relationships with superiors, interpersonal conflict, lack of social support
  • Role in the organisation – Role ambiguity, role conflict, responsibility
  • Career development – Career stagnation and uncertainty, under-promotion or over-promotion, poor pay, job insecurity, low social value to work
  • Individual differences – Coping style, personality, hardiness, resilience
  • Home-work interface – Conflicting demands of work and home, low support at home, dual career problems.

Similar to physical hazards, some workers may be at greater risk from psychosocial hazards due to barriers to understanding or participating in safety processes. This means there may be a greater severity of harm for workers who may have:

  • Limited experience (e.g., young workers)
  • Barriers to understanding safety information (e.g., literacy or language)
  • Perceived barriers to raising safety issues (e.g., power imbalance or lack of safety culture), or
  • Previous exposure to a hazard.

How significant is the problem in New Zealand?

The 2021 New Zealand Psychosocial Survey assessed a wide range of psychosocial factors in the workplace to gain a better understanding of psychosocial health in the New Zealand working environment.

The research surveyed 3,612 workers and key findings were:

  • 35% of workers reported being exposed to at least one offensive behaviour in the preceding 12 months.
  • Bullying is the most common hostile act reported by workers (23%), followed by cyberbullying (16%), threats of violence (14%), sexual harassment (11%) and physical violence (11%).
  • The most common sources of psychosocial risk for workers include the speed and intensity of work, the need to conceal feelings from other people at work, and workload.
  • Māori and Pacific workers report higher levels of insecurity over their working conditions and threats to professional identity.
  • Māori workers were more likely to report exposure to bullying (28%), cyberbullying (21%), sexual harassment (15%), threats of violence (20%) and physical violence (17%).
  • Industry plays a role in shaping workplace psychosocial environments.
  • The most common protective factors supporting the mental wellbeing of New Zealand workers are security over working conditions, sense of community at work, role clarity, and meaning of work.3

What are the effects of psychosocial risks on workers and the organisation?

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 do not have the authority to implement the changes.
  • Workers are 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.4

Exposure to psychosocial risks at work can often cause a stress response in workers. Other harm might be in the form of anxiety, depression, burnout, and other mental health problems if the risk is endured over time. There could also be physical effects such as musculoskeletal injuries, chronic disease or fatigue-related injuries.

These problems can in turn lead to absenteeism, presenteeism (where workers are physically present but not fully engaged in their work due to physical or psychological health problems) and high staff turnover. Such situations can be taxing for workers who may need to seek workplace adjustments or commit time to receive professional help to manage their wellbeing. These issues can also be costly for organisations, both in terms of lost productivity and the cost of recruiting and training new staff.

In addition to the direct costs of psychosocial risks, there are also associated indirect costs. For example, reduced morale and motivation can impact the quality of work or delivery of customer service. This can potentially damage the reputation of the organisation, making it less attractive to potential workers and customers.

How can you prevent and manage psychosocial risks?

Psychosocial risk management is relatively new in most industries, and not all organisations have the in-house capability to successfully identify risks. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA), organisations have a primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of workers including psychological and physical health. This requires agencies to understand and control the risks of mental or psychosocial harm in their workplace.

This involves eliminating or minimising psychosocial risks so far as is reasonably practicable, which can be done by:

  • Developing policies, procedures and guidance on mental health risks.
  • Clearly describing roles and responsibilities, and ways to report concerns.
  • Developing training for leaders and workers on mental health risks, their consequences, and ways to manage them.
  • Providing a system for managers and workers to raise concerns and report incidents relating to mental health risks.
  • Regularly checking controls are in place and are working effectively
  • Reporting on themes in data collected on mental health risks
  • Taking action to address concerns that are raised by workers and managers
  • Engaging with workers, Health and Safety Representatives, and unions when making changes that may affect the health and safety of workers. 5

Employers should consider hazards holistically and in the context of where they exist, to properly manage them and prevent the harm they can cause.

Bodycare recognises the importance of addressing psychosocial risks in the workplace and can help your organisation develop effective strategies for doing so. Risk management and prevention require planning and is an ongoing process. Get in touch with our team today for a consultation.


1 WorkSafe – Psychosocial hazards in work environments and effective approaches for managing them

2 WorkSafe’s Strategic Plan for Work-Related Health 2016 to 2026

3 New Zealand Psychosocial Survey

4 Psychosocial Risks: A wicked challenge

5 Creating mentally healthy work and workplaces