Preventing Burnout: The Importance of Managing Psychosocial Hazards in the Workplace
In today's fast-paced and demanding work environments, it's becoming increasingly important to consider the impact of psychosocial hazards on employee health and wellbeing. These hazards, as defined by the International Labour Association (ILO, 1986), refer to the interactions between various workplace factors, such as job content, organisational conditions, and worker capacities, needs, and culture, that may influence health, work performance, and job satisfaction.
In simpler terms, psychosocial hazards are those factors in the workplace that can cause stress and lead to both psychological and physical harm. Examples of these hazards include job demands, poor supervision, and negative workplace relationships.
Stress, the response that occurs when the demands of work exceed an employee's ability to cope, is a normal reaction that can even be healthy and helpful in certain situations. However, when employees experience frequent, severe, or prolonged exposure to stress, it can lead to significant psychological and physical harm.
When we sense a threat, our bodies activate the "stress response" to help us cope with the challenge at hand. This response is meant to be short-term, but when it persists for prolonged periods, it can take a significant toll on our physical and mental health, affecting every system in our bodies. Long-term stress has been linked to several serious health complications, including heart problems, sleeping disorders, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, breathing difficulties, and even increased risk of type 2 diabetes and fertility problems.
Burnout, on the other hand, is the result of prolonged exposure to psychosocial hazards. It's a state of complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that can arise from chronic stress over a long period of time. Although burnout is not a medical condition, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as an "occupational phenomenon" in the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11). Symptoms of burnout may include feelings of exhaustion, increased distance from one's job, negative attitudes towards work, and reduced professional efficacy.
It's essential to be aware of these symptoms and intervene early to prevent burnout and other psychological harm in the workplace. Signs of burnout in employees may include changes in mood or behavior, such as increased irritability or anger, changes in their interaction with co-workers, management, or clients, consistently low energy levels, poor work quality or performance, and critical or cynical language about their role or workplace.
Preventing psychological harm in the workplace requires a multi-faceted approach that considers factors such as work conditions, stress management, and personality style. It's not enough to simply offer self-care or well-being days. Instead, organisations should identify psychosocial hazards within the workplace and develop clear plans to minimize or manage them. This includes creating optimal work conditions that foster employee recognition, meaning, and development opportunities, as well as building a workplace culture that values and promotes psychological health and safety.
Leaders also play a crucial role in managing employee well-being by bringing a humanistic approach to leadership and fostering a climate of psychological safety. Providing mechanisms for employees to identify and manage stressors, establishing systems to address well-being concerns and mental health, and offering opportunities to enhance stress management and resiliency-based skills are all important steps to prevent psychological harm in the workplace.
By prioritising employee psychological wellbeing and taking proactive steps to manage psychosocial hazards, organisations can create a safer and more productive work environment for all employees.