Expert forecast on emerging psychosocial risks related to occupational safety and health

The top 10 emerging psychosocial risks identified in the survey

Testo tratto da: Expert forecast on emerging psychosocial risks related to occupational safety and health (Le previsioni degli esperti sui rischi psicosociali emergenti relativi alla sicurezza e salute sul lavoro)

Fonte: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work


During recent decades significant changes have taken place in the world of work which have resulted in new challenges with regard to workers’ occupational safety and health. These changes have led—besides physical, biological and chemical risks — to emerging psychosocial risks, which are related to the way work is designed,

organised and managed, as well as the economic and social contexts of work.

This report summarises the results of an expert forecast on emerging psychosocial risks related to occupational safety and health. In addition to a questionnaire-based survey of experts, a literature review was conducted in order to support and complement the findings.

Within the scope of this project, an ‘emerging OSH risk’ has been defined as any occupational risk that is both new and increasing.

By new, it is meant that:

  • the riskwas previously unknown and is caused by newprocesses, newtechnologies, new types of workplace, or social or organisational change; or
  • a long-standing issue is newly considered as a risk due to a change in social or public perception; or
  • new scientific knowledge allows a long-standing issue to be identified as a risk.

The risk is increasing if:

  • the number of hazards leading to the risk is growing; or
  • the likelihood of exposure to the hazard leading to the risk is increasing (exposure level and/or the number of people exposed); or
  • the effect of the hazard on workers’ health is getting worse (seriousness of health effects and/or the number of people affected).

To performthis expert forecast on emerging psychosocial risks, a Delphi studywas run in three consecutive rounds to avoid individual, non-scientifically founded opinions.

This method was also chosen to verify whether a consensus is reached among the respondents.

In the first round, expertswere addressed in order to propose and prioritise riskswhich in their opinion are emerging. Based on the results of the first survey round, a second

questionnaire was developed. All items mentioned in the first round were fed-back and rated by the experts in the second survey round.

A five-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) was employed. This procedure was repeated in the third survey round.

Generally, 62 experts in the first survey round, and 79 experts in the second and third rounds, were invited to participate in the survey, following their nomination by the Agency’s focal points and the members of the Topic Centre on Research—Work and Health (TC/WH). There were 28 valid questionnaires for the first survey round, 21 for the second round and 16 for the third round, and these were returned from 13 Member States of the European Union (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) as well as the USA and one international organisation (the International Labour Organisation (ILO)). The response rate varied between 45%(first survey round), 27 % (second survey round) and 21 % (third survey round). As a condition of participation, the experts were asked to have at least five years’experience in the field of OSH and psychosocial risks. The expertsmostly worked in the field of psychological research. Many were additionally involved in consulting, teaching and training activities, and some in labour inspection and policy development.

The top 10 emerging psychosocialrisks identifiedin the survey

The top 10 emerging psychosocial risks revealed by the experts’ forecast are related to the following five main topics: (i) new forms of employment contracts and job insecurity, (ii) the ageing workforce, (iii) work intensification, (iv) high emotional demands at work, and (v) poor work–life balance.

New forms of employment contracts and job in security

Concerning the first main topic, new forms of employment contracts and job insecurity, the experts stressed that the new forms of employment and contracting practices, including precarious contracts (e.g. temporary or on-call contracts) and the trend in companies towards lean production and outsourcing, are important factors affecting the occupational health and safety of many workers.Workers in these types of contract are more vulnerable than, for instance, permanent workers. They usually carry out the most hazardous jobs, work in poorer conditions, and often receive less (OSH) training, which increases the risk of occupational accidents. Also, the experts highlighted the risk of marginalisation as a consequence of successive short-term contracts and the resulting discontinuity in work careers.Workers’ isolation caused by newforms ofworking patterns such as telework or temporarywork is also put forward.

These implications, in the context of unstable labourmarkets, increaseworkers’feeling of job insecurity, which augments the level of work-related stress and may have a negative impact on workers’health.

Scientific literature supports the results of the experts’ forecast. An increasing number of jobs are described as precarious, atypical or contingent work. In scientific literature it is often associated with non-standard forms of work, such as temporary, part-time, on-call, day-hire or short-term positions, and also with the increase in the prevalence of self-employment. Additionally, work at home and multiple jobs contribute to the increasing significance of ‘non-standard’forms of work. There is also growing evidence that there are specific risks for health and safety in the workplace connected with the conditions that characterise these forms of work. The increasing number of temporarily employed workers is associated with a fragmentation of legal responsibilities, and these workers are under-represented in health and safety committees. Some sources indicate that personal protective equipment is made

available less often to temporary workers than to permanent workers. A synopsis of the literature review of the influence of irregular forms of employment on workers’ OSH revealed that non-permanent workers face higher job insecurity, poorer job conditions, higher job demands and more occupational accidents. Moreover, stressrelated tension and exhaustion appear to be more severe for precariously employed workers than forworkers in permanent jobs, although there are also studieswhere this conclusion has not been proven.

Job insecurity is defined as an overall concern about the continued existence of the job in the future, and also as a perceived threat to various job features such as position within an organisation or career opportunities. This phenomenon is especially observed in the context of organisational changes that include reorganisation, outsourcing, mergers and acquisitions, and often redundancies as a way of tackling increased competitiveness. The main theoretical bases to explain the negative health effects of job insecurity are, for most researchers, stress theories. Studies usually indicate the relationship between job insecurity and poorer mental health, measured usually with the general health questionnaire (GHQ). Burnout, job-induced tension, and depression were also observed. The aggravation of physical health as a cause of job insecurity was also revealed, although this relationship has been analysed less


The ageing workforce

A further emerging risk that the experts strongly agreed on is the OSH risks for the ageing workforce, which they see as a consequence of both the ageing population and the higher retirement age. The experts emphasised the fact that ageing workers aremore vulnerable to poorworking conditions than youngworkers. Additionally, the failure in providing ageing workers with lifelong learning opportunities increased the mental and emotional demands upon them, which may affect their health and increase the probability of work-related accidents.

Scientific literature also stresses the actual and further rise in the proportion of older employees and discusses the resulting consequences for the occupational safety and health of older employees. Ageing can be understood as a dynamic and differentiated process of change in which functions decline (e.g. muscle strength, sight, short-term memory or speed of perception) at the same time as other skills develop (e.g. competence to judge, steadiness or sense of responsibility). The specifics of the physical and psychosocial work environment additionally influences the work performance and ability of older workers. Thus, it is stressed that general conclusions about the performance of ageing workers cannot be drawn, owing to differences in their working environment and conditions, and the individual differences concerning decreasing and increasing abilities linked to age. Similarly, the accident statistics are inconsistent. In some studies the number of accidents increases with age, whereas in other studies it decreases. Societies, organisations and employees still face difficulties, in terms of OSH, in managing the consequences of the trend towards an older

workforce in a satisfactoryway . It is emphasised that, in order to allowhealthy and safe work during a prolonged working life, general working conditions need to be improved.

Work intensification

Experts involved in the forecast see the next identified risk, work intensification (high workload and work pressure), as a consequence of the reduction of workplaces linked to the aspects mentioned in relation to new forms of employment contracts and job insecurity, and also of the growing amount of information to handle atwork as a result of the introduction of new information and communication technologies (ICT) into the workplace. A higher workload, andmore demands shared between fewer workers can lead to an increase in work-related stress. Within this context, workers may also fear to be assessed more upon their efficiency and the outcomes of their work, and hence tend to work longer working hours in order to finish their task, sometimes without receiving adequate compensation (in the form of free time or financial compensation) and social support. All of this may result in more stress in workers and

affect their health and safety at work.

The literature reviewalso shows thatwork intensification has been a significant feature of the changes taking place in companies in themajority of developed countries since the 1980s. A growing number of workers state that they experience high levels of pressure stemming from high-speed tasks and/or strict deadlines, lifting heavy weights and arduous postures. European statistics indicate that almost half of all European employees work at very high speed for three quarters or more of the time.

In comparison with previous years, this tendency is on the increase. The relevant literature broadly associates work intensification with a deterioration in working conditions, whether they are assessed in terms of physical or psychological discomforts, nuisance or occupational risks. This may lead to negative effects on employees’ health. According to the European working conditions survey (2000), the higher the pace constraints, the more probable the workers’ perception that their health is threatened. The most common health problems reported by workers are backache, muscular pains, fatigue and stress.

High emotional demands at work

The experts involved in the Delphi study agreed that one of the emerging risks is related to high emotional demands at work. Moreover, workers may try to hide their difficulties in coping with these demands as a reaction to the fear of losing their job, which can be a source of additional stress. Some experts are of the opinion that, although the issue is not new, it is a growing concern, especially in the healthcare and service sector, which is growing and where competition is increasing. Some respondents identified bullying as a contributing factor to these increased emotional demands.

The problemof violence and bullying in workplaces has created special interest in the past fewyears and has resulted inmany scientific publications related to this issue. The European Commission defines workplace violence as: ‘Incidents where staff is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances related to their work, including commuting to and from work, involving an explicit or implicit challenge to their safety, well-being or health’. This problem affects all types of occupation and activity sectors, although the prevalence is higher in the services sector. For both the victims and witnesses, violence and bullying are important sources of stress and thus negatively affect physical andmental health. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), deterioration of selfesteem, anxiety, depression, apathy, irritability,memory disorders, and even paranoiac disorders and suicide can appear as a consequence of violence or bullying. The somatic pathologies, such as organic, functional and sleep disorders, alterations in the cortisol cycle, loss of appetite, hypertension, vomiting, chronic fatigue, and back, muscular and joint pain, as well as headaches, can also appear.

Poor work – lifebalance

Finally, poor work–life balance was also identified by the experts as one of the top emerging psychosocial risks. It has been stressed that all of the changes in work organisation mentioned above may lead to higher pressure on workers and can spill over into private life. Additionally, phenomena such as more women at work, single parents and households with‘dual careers’, with less family support and in some cases withmore dependent older relatives, result in an increase in the number ofworkers for whom a good work–life balance is especially important. The experts emphasised that failure in achieving a decent work–life balance may lead to stress and other negative health effects for workers.

According to the relevant literature, irregularworking hours, especially combinedwith the lack of possibility for employees to arrange their work to a certain extent to suit their personal needs, often causes problems affecting work–life balance and employees’health. Non-standard hours such as shift, weekend and night work can be especially disruptive for work–life balance when an employee is in a precarious employment situation. Casual work, combining high work intensity and variable and unpredictable working hours, leads to work–life conflict and has detrimental effects on well-being.

To provide as complete as possible a picture of potential emerging risks in the world ofwork, three other expert forecasts including literature reviewswere also conducted.

They dealt with physical, chemical and biological risks. The identification of new and emerging risks by the European Risk Observatory is aimed at early anticipation in order to prevent any possible negative effects of these risks on workers’ safety and health.

This way, the targeting of resources as well as interventions and strategies to tackle future risks can be better planned, enhanced in effectiveness and assessed in time. The results of the expert survey on emerging risks should be seen as a basis for discussion among stakeholders to set priorities for further research andactions.



© European Agency for Safety and Health atWork, 2007

Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged


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