Is there a model code of practice?
Psychosocial hazards and work-related stresses in the workplace do not only come at a high cost to employees’ health, but are also proven to come at a high cost to employers, as it has a direct impact on work performance, and ultimately, the bottom line. Studies also show that this is currently exacerbated by the social and economic impact of COVID-19.
Simply put, the coronavirus which has reached epidemic proportions, has also led to stress levels of epidemic proportions. For this reason, it should be both the moral duty as well as a strategic imperative of employers to address this issue. In this article, we deep dive into this critical issue, and investigate global best practices for managing psychosocial hazards effectively.
Psychosocial hazards in the workplace
Psychosocial hazards are risk factors in the workplace that come in many shapes and sizes and may lead to the detriment of worker wellness. They most typically take place in one or more of the following key areas: Work organisation; work design; working conditions; and labour relations and they most commonly relate to one or more of the following:
- High job demands;
- Low job control;
- Poor support;
- Lack of role clarity;
- Poor organisational change management;
- Inadequate reward and recognition;
- Poor organisational justice;
- Traumatic events or material;
- Remote or isolated work;
- Poor physical environment;
- Violence and aggression;
- Bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment; and
- Conflict via poor workplace relationships and interactions.
How do psychosocial hazards impact staff?
Although psychosocial hazards are primarily associated with mental health, the simple reality is that the mind and body are connected, and one can’t function optimally without the other. High levels of mental stress manifest in the body’s physiology in many negative and surprising ways.
If the body experiences a continuous strain, stress can provoke long-term damage to systems and organs. Particularly if the body cannot rest and recover. It can contribute to peptic ulcers, inflammatory bowel diseases, and musculoskeletal disorders. It can impair immune functions, which can ultimately result in cancer. And it can cause hypertension, the leading cause of heart disease, and a significant contributor to the development of various other cardiovascular diseases.
When taken together, these disorders are collectively behind a great majority of diseases, death, disability, and chronic medical care in first-world countries. In developing countries, they are among the leading causes of death. In South Africa, heart disease is second only to HIV/AIDS-related deaths, with 215 deaths to heart disease and/or strokes daily. This is more than all the cancers combined.
This does not even begin to account for the number of physical injuries as a result of fatigue-related workplace incidents.
Mental stress response can be more immediate than most people think. When a shock or severe stress floods the system with catecholamines like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine it becomes harder to reason and remain calm. This can place both the employee and peers at severely increased risk in dangerous working conditions or volatile situations.
However, slower- and lower-level work-related stresses can also build into serious problems if they continue unresolved. The longer that psychosocial burden persists, the higher the risk that a psychological injury will occur. This can lead to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep disorders, and various other mental health problems.
A 2016 study conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) concluded that 25% of our local workforce had already been diagnosed with depression. Over 75% had one or more symptoms!
Post-COVID-19 statistics have not yet been established, but the unemployment crisis and related job security, as well as the global economic slowdown, are likely to have substantially increased these values.
Common and persistent cognitive impairment from depression includes reduced concentration and increased distraction, poor short- and long-term memory, indecisiveness, slower thinking speed and higher difficulty solving problems, struggling to express thoughts, and negative or distorted thinking patterns.
Substance misuse implications
Stress is a key risk factor in the formation of an addiction, in its ongoing maintenance, in triggering relapses, and ultimately in treatment failure.
The most common coping mechanisms to deal with stress are smoking, drinking, and overeating. Aside from alcohol and nicotine, there are a host of other narcotics, both legal and illegal, which are available to anyone in pursuit of ‘self-medication’.
As much as 31.5% of the populace already has an alcohol problem (NDMP, 2019:29), and 20% of South Africans are smokers (NDMP, 2019:29). With the decriminalisation of marijuana, there is also an unknown. How significant a role this may play in the future is yet to be determined.
How do psychosocial hazards impact employers?
Organisations which do not actively address psychosocial hazards are prone to:
- High staff turnover,
- High levels of absenteeism,
- Reduced work performance,
- Increased customer complaints,
- Decreased employee satisfaction and morale; and
- Various other and sometimes sudden shifts in employee behaviour.
Existing South African legislation on the matter
Regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (85 of 1993) (“OHSA”) are primarily focused on physical dangers in the work environment, but do, in fact, seek to address each of the five general groups of workplace health hazards: Physical, chemical, ergonomics, psychosocial, and biological hazards. However, no specific regulations currently address psychosocial or psychological hazards directly. For now, the broader definition of the intent of the Act remains:
- To provide for the health and safety of persons at work and for the health and safety of persons in connection with the use of plant and machinery;
- The protection of persons other than persons at work against hazards to health and safety arising out of or in connection with the activities of persons at work;
- To establish an advisory council for occupational health and safety; and
- To provide for matters connected therewith.
Although the OHSA does currently provide limited frameworks though:
The Employment Equity Act (55 of 1998) (EEA)
The EEA assists in working with people living with disabilities and providing further guidance on their employment. According to the EEA, a disability is defined as a long-term or recurring physical or mental impairment which substantially limits their entry into, or advancement in employment. In some cases, the results of psychosocial hazards may constitute a mental impairment.
Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace (Government Gazette Nr. 46056)
The Code of Good Practice provides further guidance on persons with disabilities as well as dealing with harassment, including bullying, which overlaps with psychosocial hazards in the workplace.
Court findings on the matter
Jansen v Legal Aid South Africa  ZALCCT 17 (16 May 2018)
This case is an example of how a mental health issue caused by psychosocial hazards can be argued in terms of “a long-term or recurring mental impairment” under the EEA.
The employee in question had been in the employ of the employer since 2007 and was a good performer. However, he was diagnosed with major depression in 2010. He disclosed his condition to the employer and accessed the employer’s wellness programme, but his condition deteriorated due to his personal circumstances in 2012.
His supervisor unexpectedly testified on behalf of his spouse during his divorce proceedings and he felt betrayed by his supervisor, bringing it to his employer’s attention. The employer was advised by a clinical psychologist that the matter needed urgent resolution, but the employer ignored the professional recommendation.
The employee’s condition deteriorated further and he was absent from work for 17 days in August 2013. Upon his return to work, he informed the employer of his mental state, but the employer responded by notifying the employee that his leave of absence was unpaid.
The employee was sick again on 7 November 2013, at which time the employer attended to the employee’s residence and issued him with a disciplinary charge sheet for misconduct. This ranged from unauthorised absence and a failure to notify the employer of his absence, to insolence and a failure to obey a reasonable instruction.
The employee once again alerted the employer to his mental condition. However, the employer convened a disciplinary enquiry and summarily dismissed the employee.
At the subsequent Labour Court hearing, the employer was ordered to reinstate the employee with retrospective effect plus six months’ compensation.
It is worth noting that despite the favourable ruling towards the employee, the Judge found that his depression did not amount to a disability. This introduces the question as to when depression, for example, amounts to a disability.
What can employers do about psychosocial hazards?
In the absence of more specific guidance from the OHSA on psychosocial hazards, it is largely up to the interpretation of the general guidelines outlined in the Act and the Code. Employers must protect workers from the risks of work-related stress, so the onus lies with them on how to best identify and manage potential hazards. General best practices that can however be followed, are:
- Collective risk assessment and management measures, so far as is reasonably practicable, to achieve full compliance;
- Proactive controls with an aim to preventative measures at both group and individual levels;
- Employee empowerment programs that increase worker coping mechanisms, build social support systems, and afford more control over their tasks;
- Improved organisational communication and participation in decision-making;
- Holistic oversight that considers both working and living conditions of employees; and
- Other enhanced and visible safety and health programs within the organisation.
An international guideline that should be taken into consideration when developing suitable protocols, is that of the International Organization for Standardization, and more specifically, the ISO 45003: 2021 standard: Occupational health and safety management – Psychological health and safety at work – Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks.
Psychosocial workplace hazards affect a significant portion of our society and current legislation lacks clarity on the matter. Until the matter is fully resolved before the courts employers should act in the spirit of the Constitution, especially the values relating to human dignity and human rights.
By acting openly and pro-actively in the pursuit of mental health and wellbeing for all employees, organisations can send a clear message to their workers that they are valued on many levels. In this way, employers can enjoy improved worker productivity, satisfaction, and engagement while simultaneously reducing absenteeism, performance reviews, and compensation claims. Everybody wins.
For expert assistance with the development of policies, protocols and procedures to deal with psychosocial hazards in general, more industry specifically, feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org to tap into (SA)UEO’s trusted business community who renders these services to members of the organisation at a preferred rate.