Management of psychosocial risks in European workplaces - evidence from the second European survey of enterprises on new and emerging risks (ESENER-2)

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Swenneke G. van den Heuvel, Maartje C. Bakhuys Roozeboom, Iris Eekhout, Anita Venema, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO).

 Introduction:

The changing world of work has increased the prevalence of psychosocial risks at European workplaces. Psychosocial risks may have severe consequences for workers’ health and well-being. Research has shown that they are related to poorer mental health, depression, cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal disorders[1] [2][3][4]. Therefore, appropriate management of these risks is necessary. Earlier research has identified several drivers and barriers for psychosocial risk management in the workplace[5][6]. It has also been shown that organisational characteristics such as size and sector as well as the national context in which organisations operate are related to the level psychosocial risks management[7][8]. This article explores further the relation between psychosocial risk management in companies and their national context, focusing on the role of national culture.

 Psychosocial risk management

Psychosocial risk management

Figure 1: Drivers and barriers for psychosocial risk management at the organisational level

Psychosocial risks relate to the way work is designed, organised and managed, as well as to the social context of work.[7] In recent decades, the world of work has gone through some major changes due to globalisation, tertiarisation and technological changes. Potential indirect effects of globalisation may be intensification of work, job insecurity and reduced autonomy. Tertiarisation, i.e. the increase of work in the service sector, resulted in more ‘emotional labour’ (defined as the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job[9], which is associated with higher risk of violence and harassment. Technological changes may lead to ‘techno-stress’, which means an individual’s anxiety about the ability to use technology effectively or frustration if technology fails. In summary, these changes have increased the exposure of employees to .psychosocial risks.

Different approaches exist to deal with psychosocial risks at the organisational level. A distinction can be made between organisational and individual orientations, where organisational interventions are focused more on prevention[10]. Ideally, psychosocial risk management is aimed at prevention, elimination or reduction of psy­chosocial risks and should be a systematic, continuous process of identification of work related risks, risk analyses and risk management[11][12].

Drivers and barriers at the organisational level

Earlier research has identified several drivers and barriers for psychosocial risk management at the organisational level. The motives for taking action on psychosocial risk management pointed out in previous studies include awareness of the presence of psychosocial risks and recognition of their potential negative consequences, reduction of sickness absence, prevention of turnover and accidents, as well as the increase of commitment and productivity of employees[13][14][15]. In addition, client requirements and the maintenance of a good reputation of the organisation appear to be important motivators for organisations to manage psychosocial risks[5].

Psychosocial risk management can also be seen as an organisational change process. To make psychosocial risk management part of the continuing policy cycle of the organisation, several factors play an important facilitating role. Important drivers in this manner are management support[16][17][18][6][5], involvement of employees[18][6], transparent communication and procedural justice[6].

Barriers for psychosocial risk management have been identified as well. Secondary analyses on ESENER-1 data show that a lack of technical support and guidance and a lack of resources are among the most important barriers[5].

The second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2)[8] provides data on drivers and barriers related to general occupational safety and health (OSH) management. Figure 1 gives an overview of the relation between these drivers and barriers and psychosocial risk management[19]. Management commitment to manage OSH risks appears to be by far the most important driver for psychosocial risk management, followed by meeting expectations from employees as a reason to manage psychosocial risks, reports on the presence of psychosocial risks within the organisation, the presence of any form of employee representation, and the motive to increase productivity by managing psychosocial risks. The most important barriers to psychosocial risk management are lack of expertise or specialist support and lack of awareness among management.

Contextual factors

Figure 2: Psychosocial risk management among EU-28 and EFTA countries

It has been shown that organisational characteristics such as size and sector activities, as well as the national context in which organisations operate, are related to how organisations deal with psychosocial risks.

Company size and sector

Research shows that large organisations have a higher quality of general OSH management. This is related to the availability of budgets for OSH management and the available expertise, but also to employee participation[7][8]. There is also a strong correlation between sector activities and the reported prevalence of psychosocial risks. Sectors that put a relatively large amount of effort into managing psychosocial risks are the healthcare sector, the education sector and the financial sector. In sectors such as mining, agriculture and construction, organisations have relatively few procedures and measures in place to deal with psychosocial risks[7][8].

In addition, the level of psychosocial risk management differs among countries (Figure 2). In general, northern European countries appear to have a more comprehensive approach than eastern European countries[7]. Recently, joint analyses of three important and large scale European surveys show that particularly the country level is important in explaining the relation between psychosocial risks at work and psychosocial risk management[20].

Several national factors may explain country differences in psychosocial risk management at the organisational level, including the economic situation, national initiatives and policy measures and national culture.

Economic situation

The economic situation in a country may have a determining role in the quality of working conditions. Research shows that organisations invest less in OSH prevention in times of recession or economic bad times[21]. In addition, many national labour inspectorates faced budget cuts in the last decade. Since regulatory pressure is an important factor on OSH management, the consequence is a potential weakening of preventive OSH systems[22][23].

It can be assumed that the economic situation in a country will affect psychosocial risk management at organisational level, which may be through the budgets organisations have available to manage psychosocial risks and through the perception of the psychosocial risk as a priority issue. Several studies support this assumption[24] showed the negative effects of the economic crisis on psychosocial risk exposure and work-related stress prevalence[24]. It can also be assumed that the economic situation of a country is related to the number of national initiatives and policy measures in place to stimulate psychosocial risk management within organisations.

National initiatives & policy measures

Countries also differ in relation to the number of national initiatives and policy measures that are in place to stimulate companies to manage psychosocial risks. Several types of national (policy) initiatives aimed at psychosocial risks can be found in Europe. In the PRIMA-EF project[11] they were classified as (i) legislation/policy development, (ii) standards at national/stakeholder levels, (iii) stakeholder/collective agreements, (iv) declaration signing, (v) international organisation action, (vi) social dialogue initiatives, (vii) national strategy development, (viii) development of guidelines, (ix) economic incentives/programmes, (x) establishing networks/partnerships[10]. Unfortunately, research on the effectiveness of policy initiatives on psychosocial risk management is scarce.

National culture

In addition to the financial situation and national initiatives and policies to stimulate psychosocial risk management within organisations, the national culture may also play an important role. In the past decades, a lot of research has been done on differences between national cultures[25][26][27][28][29][30]. The most commonly cited and used model on national culture is the model of Hofstede et al. [31] which describes cultural dimensions at the national level (see explanation in the box).

Several studies have found evidence for the relation between national culture and organisational culture, workplace behaviours, attitudes and other organisational outcomes[32][33][34][35]. The results of these studies may imply that national culture dimensions also affect the presence of organisational level drivers and barriers for psychosocial risk management and the level of psychosocial risk management itself.

National culture framework of Hofstede

Hofstede defines culture as ‘the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another (Hofstede, 1980, p. 21). Culture in this definition includes systems of values. Hofstede defines values as ‘a broad tendency to prefer certain states of affairs over others’ (Hofstede, 1980, p. 18).

His study identifies four main cultural dimensions: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism and Masculinity. The four dimensions were empirically found and validated, and each country can be positioned on the scale of the dimension. One of the four basic value dimensions is Individualism (in low Individualism countries employees are morally involved with their employer). Because there is little variance in the scores between European countries (in general highly individualistic), this dimension was not used in the analyses for the present study.

Power Distance (PD)

Countries with a high score on the PD Index, are characterized by Hofstede et al. (2010) as countries in which people (employees and man­agement) generally prefer managers who take initiative. Countries with a low score on PD are characterized as countries in which people generally prefer managers that consult their employees first before making decisions.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UA)

Countries with a high score on UA are characterized by Hofstede et al. (2010) as countries where there is a low tolerance for uncer­tainty. On average there is a higher level of anxiety and stress in these countries. People in these countries seek stability. Countries with a low score on Uncertainty Avoidance are characterized as countries where there is a high tolerance for uncer­tainty. Employees in these countries are less loyal to employers, and switch more easily from employer than employees in high UA countries.

Masculinity (versus femininity) (MAS)

High MAS countries are characterized by Hofstede et al. (2010) as countries where earnings, recognition, advancement, achievements and competition are important. Feminine countries are characterized as countries where quality of life, human contacts, a friendly atmosphere, living in a desir­able environment and social accomplishments are important.

Contextual determinants of psychosocial risk management

Figure 3: Associations between national context variables and psychosocial risk management

The current research explored the relation between psychosocial risk management within organisations and their national context. Analyses have been performed on ESENER-2 data, supplemented with data on the national context: cultural dimensions, GDP per capita, national initiatives with regard to safety and health, and in particular to psychosocial risks. Figure 3 shows the relationship between the national context and psychosocial risk management.

The association of almost all national context variables with psychosocial risk management was statistically significant with the exception of masculinity. Psychosocial risk management is associated with low power distance, low uncertainty avoidance, a favourable economic situation (high GDP per capita) and national initiatives in the field of psychosocial risks (joint efforts of social partners and measures to implement the EU framework agreement on work-related stress). Note that the relationships between all the national context variables and psychosocial risk management are more or less at the same level, and comparable to the relationships between most drivers at the organisational level and psychosocial risk management. However, the association with the variable ‘management commitment to OSH’ is much stronger (see Figure 1).

All national context variables were strongly related to each other, with the exception of the cultural dimension masculinity. Joint efforts of social partners and measures to implement the EU framework agreement on work-related stress are more common in national cultures low on power distance and on uncertainty avoidance and in countries with a high GDP per capita. However, the causality of the relation is not clear and based on the current research, it is not possible to establish which factor of the national context is the most important for psychosocial risk management.

The results also showed that the national context matters in organisations of all sizes, with the exception of the small organisations with 5 to 9 employees. These small companies have less measures in place to deal with psychosocial risks and have less drivers to deal with health and safety risks, irrespective of the national context. Also, previous research has shown the poorer quality of OSH management in smaller companies and the high level of non-compliance in relation to OSH regulation[36].

Conclusions

It has been found that both the national context and company characteristics are related to psychosocial risk management within organisations. However, it is fairly difficult to untangle the specific effects and the interrelations between different contextual factors. Most national context variables were related to psychosocial risk management and most context variables were related to each other. A plausible interpretation may be that initiatives in the field of OSH in general and psychosocial risks in particular, are influenced by both a favourable economic situation and a favourable cultural climate. Indications for these relations can be found in the literature. Several studies have found indications of a relationship between the national culture and the psychosocial work environment[37][34][33]. The possible impact of the economic situation on national initiatives in the field of OSH and psychosocial risks is less clear, but it is plausible that a poor economic situation may lead to less budget for these initiatives. However, it is still unclear how culture and economic situation are related to each other. More research is needed to investigate the causality between the different contextual factors and psychosocial risk management within organisations.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this study for practice. An important result is that the national context matters: the level of psychosocial risk management was found to be higher in countries with a favourable national context than in countries with an unfavourable national context. This suggests that certain cultural dimensions and the national initiatives are important in shaping the management of psychosocial risks in the workplace. Although the cultural dimensions are hard to change, the national initiatives such as joint actions of social partners, changes in the legal framework, campaigns and sector-specific activities should be strengthened.

Moreover, the study shows that the importance of certain organisational characteristics is the same independently of the national context. In general, the drivers appear more important than the barriers (which were rather weakly related to the level of psychosocial risk management); in particular, the results showed that:

  • Management commitment is the strongest driver of psychosocial risk management.
  • Formal employee involvement (in a works council, in a safety and health committee, as trade union representatives or as safety and health representatives) and informal employee involvement (e.g. in design and implementation of measures after a risk assessment) also appear to be drivers of psychosocial risk management.

Actions towards better psychosocial risk management may be taken by employers, employees (representatives), social partners and sector organisations. However, national initiatives are also conceivable. For example, management commitment may be encouraged by awareness campaigns, and employee involvement may be stimulated by legislation.

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Contributors

Palmer