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Psychosocial hazards

  • Mental health is affected by psychosocial hazards which impact health through the stress response.
  • The employer must assess psychosocial hazards during the risk analysis.
  • The employee must notify the employer of any health disorders which might impede their performance and of any shortcomings in the arrangements.

Psychosocial hazards

Work-related health risks can be divided into two: the first impact our physical health, the second our mental health. Mental health is affected by psychosocial hazards which impact health through the stress response.

The stress response, in turn, may lead to both physical and mental health problems.

The reality of the problem is proven by several studies conducted in Estonia which are still relevant despite being carried out many years ago.

In 2006, the Ministry of Social Affairs carried out a study which revealed that 53% of employees consider their work to be arduous. In 2009, a study commissioned by the Labour Inspectorate indicated that 23% of employees in Estonia suffer from work-related stress.

If we give these figures a financial dimension, the society loses approximately 1–3.5% of GDP.

What are psychosocial hazards and work-related stress?

In 2000, Lennart Levi clearly explained the concept of psychosocial hazards: psychosocial hazards are such aspects of work organisation, management and the social context of the working environment which may cause physical or psychological damage to an employee.

Psychosocial hazards are defined in section 91 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act as follows. Psychosocial hazards are work involving a risk of an accident or violence, unequal treatment, bullying and harassment at work, work not corresponding to the abilities of an employee, working alone for an extended period of time and monotonous work and other factors related to management, organisation of work and the working environment that may affect the mental or physical health of an employee, including causing work stress.

All examples of psychosocial hazards listed in the law can thus be summarised as follows: they are problems which stem from the organisation of work, aspects of management, and the social working environment which mainly boils down to communication.

Psychosocial hazards and work stress are closely related. It could be said that workplace psychosocial hazards are the cause of work-related stress. Work-related stress occurs in situations where work demands become too much to handle for an employee. Therefore, one is the cause, the other the consequence.

Work-related stress is a sense of pressure that arises when there is a conflict between work challenges and the person’s ability to cope with them.

A small amount of work-related stress can be motivating and have a positive effect. However, the situation is serious when stress gets to be too intense or lasts for a long time and there are not enough resources to cope with it. In a new or stressful situation and under heavy workloads, the body goes through an adaptation reaction, also known as stress reaction. It is a neurochemical process which, among other things, causes increased heart rate, rapid breathing and sharper senses. All these reactions are important in a situation where we only have two options – fight or flight. This kind of fight-or-flight response was useful in the past; however, in the case of long-term stress in a modern working environment it is no longer justified – as a result, the body becomes exhausted and mental and physical health problems arise. For instance, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, musculoskeletal diseases, anxiety disorders, depression and malignant tumours are associated with work-related stress.

Numerous reports on work-related stress have identified the following key factors that cause stress at work:

  • Excessive (or insufficient) workload;
  • Unreasonable deadlines;
  • Confusing tasks and vague lines of authority;
  • No recognition for work well done;
  • No possibility to submit complaints;
  • High levels of responsibility but little control and discretion;
  • Unsupportive and uncooperative superiors, subordinates or co-workers;
  • Lack of control over work performance;
  • Uncertainty regarding own work and position;
  • Prejudices based on age, gender, race, nationality or religion;
  • Possibility of violence, intimidation or bullying;
  • Unpleasant or dangerous physical working environment;
  • No possibility to fully exploit own potential or talents;
  • Possibility that a small mistake or loss of concentration leads to significant negative consequences; 

Why is it important to reduce stress and psychosocial hazards?

The psychosocial working environment greatly affects the health and well-being of employees. Employees experiencing work-related stress may develop severe mental and physical health problems. This in turn affects the organisation and society as a whole.

Employees may experience the following negative effects: burnout and depression, concentration difficulties, problems at home, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor physical health, particularly cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases.

At an organisational level, the negative effects are as follows: poor economic indicators, absenteeism, working when sick (employees come to work even though they cannot perform well), more occupational accidents and injuries.

On a more positive note, the following should be noted. If a good psychosocial working environment is ensured, employees are healthy and productive. Stress-related absenteeism will decrease or stop entirely. Financial losses caused by loss of productivity will also decrease.

Successful reduction of work-related stress and psychosocial hazards helps keep the employees happy. In addition, it promotes employees’ participation, motivation and innovation.

Employees suffering from work-related stress are more likely to retire before the official retirement age. A positive working environment helps retain employees. (

Does my organisation have a poor psychosocial work environment?

An employer may not always realise that the psychosocial environment of the company is not the best. After all, it is normal for employees to leave the company and for some to be ill.

But is everything really well? This is something to consider and review. Below are some questions that can help you assess whether the psychosocial environment of the organisation is good or whether it requires rapid intervention.

  • Do you get the impression that some employees leave the organisation due to stress in a psychosocial work environment? Is the turnover of staff high?
  • Do you feel that employees are absent due to work-related problems, e.g. stress or poor psychosocial work environment?
  • Has there been a change in the number of people on sick leave this year? (If so, ask for statistics.)
  • Do you feel that the performance of the company is not as good as it used to be (previous years)? There is no absenteeism but performance is not as good as it used to be.
  • Do you get the impression that conflicts arise in the company due to work-related pressure, e.g. stress or excessive workload?
  • If there are conflicts, try to identify whether they result in bullying or sexual harassment.

Risk assessment

Checklist for risk assessment without a web-based application (currently only available in Estonian)

In the determination of risk rating, take into account how many, if any, questions had the answer ‘YES”.

While the risk assessment mainly reflects the assessor’s subjective opinion of the risks, we recommend being more strict rather than too lenient when making the assessments. Being too lenient may give the result of a seemingly good situation where no measures need to be taken. Whether it really is so is another question entirely.

Level of risk 0 - All questions received a negative answer

Level of risk 1 - Out of all the questions only two received the answer ‘YES’

Level of risk 2 - One question in each section received the answer ‘YES’

Level of risk 3 - Five or more questions received the answer ‘YES’

The employer must already implement measures for risk reduction by risk level one, because instead of disappearing, tensions and problems tend to escalate over time and create even more problems.

Prevention of psychosocial hazards – what to do?

In the prevention of psychosocial hazards, it is most effective to react proactively – to prevent problems and damage. We should be two steps ahead of the problem. Experience shows that by the time work-related stress, health problems and absenteeism worsen, productivity and innovation are already decreasing. This has a significant effect on the economic indicators of the organisation.

The following factors create a good psychosocial work environment:

  • employees are well-trained and have sufficient time to organise and carry out their duties;     
  • monotonous tasks are minimal or shared between employees, and employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their work;
  • employees know exactly what is expected of them and they receive constructive feedback regularly (both positive and negative);
  • employees are involved in work-related decision making and are encouraged to voice their opinion on, for example, working methods and schedules;
  • fair distribution of duties, benefits, promotions and career opportunities;
  • friendly and supportive working environment where additional resources can be used during the peak period;
  • open and bilateral communication, employees are informed of developments, especially during organisational changes;
  • specific measures are in place for the prevention of work-related stress, harassment and third-party violence, employees feel that their problems are addressed;
  • employees can effectively balance their work and family life.

Employers can implement additional voluntary measures to improve the mental well-being of employees.


Some recommendations for the promotion of mental health and prevention of work-related stress

  • Review the process and content of work, try to reorganise poor working processes.
  • Increase the employee’s autonomy and control over their own work and working methods.
  • Include employees in decision-making and problem-solving processes.
  • Balance work efforts and rewards.
  • Improve communication and feedback.
  • Set clear roles and expectations.
  • Encourage and strengthen social support.
  • Offer and ensure further training and qualification.
  • Offer training on cognitive-behavioural techniques.
  • Use multi-modular methodology in training – videos, training groups, role playing.
  • Train employees on how to instruct their colleagues.
  • Ensure reasonable working and rest time for employees (overtime should not be the rule, evenings and weekends are for rest, not for fulfilling work duties).

(source: A guide for employers. To promote mental health in the workplace pp. 8–10)

In conclusion

Everyone benefits from risk prevention:

  • employees: improved well-being and satisfaction with work;
  • management: employees are healthy, motivated and productive;
  • organisations: overall economic indicators improve; less absenteeism, coming to work sick, occupational accidents and injuries; reduced turnover of staff;
  • society: lower costs and burden on individuals and society as a whole.

Further reading

Psychosocial hazards at work (Guidance document of the Senior Labour Inspectors’ Committee)

Guide for assessing the quality of risk assessments and risk management measures with regard to prevention of psychosocial risks (Senior Labour Inspectors’ Committee material)

Third-party violence (ROTAL brochure)

Handbook: Addressing violence and harassment against women in the world of work (ILO and UN Women, in English)

Analysis of mental health in the working environment (Analysis by the Ministry of Social Affairs)

What employers need to know about psychosocial hazards

A good psychosocial working environment is essential for much more than just complying with the law: employees who feel good about their job contribute more to the success of the company – they are more creative and committed and perform better than employees who are stressed.

Opportunities for promoting well-being and preventing work-related stress depend on the specific organisation, organisation of work, expectations and characteristics of employees, resources available, etc. However, the general rules for designing a good psychosocial working environment are: employee involvement in decisions concerning them, open communication, optimal workload, and zero tolerance for workplace violence (including signs of bullying and harassment).

When planning psychosocial environment improvement activities, keep in mind that it is always cheaper and more effective to prevent the problem at an organisational level with good management and work organisation. Where risks cannot be avoided completely, measures for the support of risk groups or for the rehabilitation of employees adversely affected by work stress may be beneficial.

Examples of organisation-level measures:

  • clear definition of the employee’s responsibilities and respective powers;
  • definition of clear principles and guidelines for the management of workplace bullying and harassment;
  • transparent staff policy;
  • enabling flexible organisation of work;
  • provision of a good physical working environment;

If risks cannot be fully eliminated, e.g. due to the nature of work (night work, work that requires a lot of communication, etc.), stress mitigation measures should be aimed at risk groups:

  • organising stress management training for employees;
  • providing training for middle management on how to manage the stress of subordinates and provide assistance;
  • promoting a healthy lifestyle (e.g. physical exercise);
  • creating opportunities for communication and support.

Nevertheless, there are often employees who, for some reason, still suffer from work-related stress. To support these individuals, the employer can:

  • provide psychological counselling and assistance to the employee;
  • enable training for improvement of professional skills;
  • provide individual organisation of work and additional support for a certain period;
  • develop support systems for the reintegration of employees who have been away from work for extended periods (e.g. due to temporary incapacity for work).

However, in the course of labour disputes, labour dispute resolution bodies have made recommendations that can be followed in future cases of workplace bullying:

  • It is not always automatically considered workplace bullying if an employee does not like the way a representative of the employer is behaving. To bring some clarity to the matter, it is necessary to communicate and clarify the situation and, if necessary, involve a senior manager, working environment specialist and representative.
  • In employment relationships, both the employee, colleagues and the employer have an obligation to communicate and respect, accept and support each other to create a positive work atmosphere.
  • If an employee feels that they have been bullied, they have an obligation to inform the employer so that the employer can conduct an investigation and react accordingly.
  • The employer must take seriously all workplace bullying complaints and investigate the facts with the aid of an impartial person and, if necessary, take all measures to resolve the situation. In the event of dispute, they have to prove that they have done so.
  • The employer has the obligation to take into account the interests of all employees, not just one employee; thus to maintain peace, both the employer and employees have to make compromises and seek a common solution and forward-looking reconciliation.
  • In a situation where the employee has informed the managers, HR specialist, and colleagues of workplace violence and the violence continues, it is not reasonable to expect additional notification from the employee or the provision of evidence for the future because legal grounds may arise for the employee to extraordinarily terminate the employment relationship due to a breach by the employer.
  • Audio and video recordings and witness statements may be used to prove the situation of workplace bullying or unequal treatment in the event of a dispute.

What employees need to know about psychosocial hazards

While the assessment of psychosocial hazards in the workplace is the responsibility of the employer, the employee also plays an important role in the creation of a healthy working environment. As psychosocial hazards affect employees in different ways, then without cooperation from the employee, it is very difficult for the employer to assess which hazards should be given the highest priority.

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an employee is required to promptly notify the employer or the employer’s representative of his or her health disorders which impede the performance of his or her duties and of any shortcomings in the protection arrangements – this is especially important in the case of psychosocial hazards where the hazard is difficult to see and impossible to measure on the basis of a limit value.

As an employee, you can take the following actions:

  • inform your employer if you need additional information or training to perform the task;
  • if you are unsure which tasks are part of your duties or which tasks you are responsible for, specify this with your immediate superior;
  • draw the attention of the employer or representative of employees to the risks in the working environment or organisation of work, and actively participate in the risk analysis process (e.g. by completing surveys or participating in discussions);
  • if you feel you are being bullied or harassed at work, be sure to notify someone you trust – your immediate superior, colleague, HR manager – and keep evidence (e-mails, witness statements) for potential future investigation;
  • take care of yourself, regularly monitor your health and well-being;
  • if you feel that for some reason you cannot temporarily perform your duties (including due to difficult experiences in your private life) and need a temporarily reduced workload or a change in duties, talk to your employer;
  • support your colleagues with their work-related problems and accept help when you need it.

Mental health guides and materials

Analyses, studies:

Guides and materials:


Private initiatives

More extensive materials: