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What is a Psychosocial Work Environment?

In this article, we'll be discussing what a psychosocial work environment is and its impact on one's health.
© University of Bergen/Authors: B.E. Moen, G. Tjalvin

Workers have literally made a chain together, to illustrate their co-operation skills
Co-operation is great at work. Here the workers at Centre for International Health have literally made a chain together, to illustrate their co-operation skills © B.E. Moen

Having a job is important and has a positive impact on one’s health

As an employee, have you ever thought about what makes a good work environment? What kind of factors are most important for how you enjoy your job? Why do you choose to work at a given work place? Why do you go to work; day after day? How would you actually evaluate your work place? There has been considerable research about such topics over the years, and many researchers have developed questionnaires and interview guides to find out what factors are most important for making “good” work places. However, the answers will differ from country to country.

An important factor for all workers is salary; we work for a living, we need to be paid. Also, work gives us an identity. By working, you participate and play a role in society, and this has importance for your well-being and self-esteem. In general, there is strong evidence to show that work is generally good for physical and mental health. Unemployment, on the other hand, is associated with poorer physical and mental health. Employment is important for obtaining economic resources, which again is essential for participation in society. Work is considered essential for individual identity, social roles and social status.

Another factor to consider when trying understanding people’s work choices is that if there are few jobs available, and one needs a job for survival – a person might accept a job with less than ideal working conditions. This is particularly important to consider in low income countries. A worker who desperately needs a job or needs to keep their job, will not feel that they are in a position to ask for benefits and improvements in their work place. To improve working conditions, it is therefore very important to have laws and legislation in place that protect workers’ rights. Clear statements are needed to enable relevant authorities, such as the Labor Inspection Agencies, to enforce standards at work places on behalf of the workers. The establishment of Unions seems to be important as well, as the larger groups of workers in Unions may be stronger and more able to discuss working conditions with the employers than small groups. Work place regulations are beneficial for the employers as well. By establishing good working conditions, work places will attract the best and most competent workers and the loyalty of the workers will increase. A loyal worker is a clear advantage for a work place and for production.

Performance and Reward

A psychological model related to working conditions is called the “effort-reward” model. This is a model showing the relationship between performance and reward. It is unfortunate if we feel that we do not get enough reward in relation to the efforts we put into our work. There are obvious rewards such as monetary gain or salary at work places, but there may be other things that also count as rewards as well, such as prestige, recognition, renown, praise, and even satisfied customers. There needs to be a balance between the demands of the work place and the perceived rewards gained from the work.

Performance-and-Reward model.jpg Efforts and rewards at work should be balanced. © University of Bergen

Definition of psychosocial work environment

What does the term “psychosocial” mean? The expression, “psychosocial work environment” covers aspects concerning both our work and our working conditions. In the English scientific literature, we find the expression “psychological and social factors in the work arena”. The psychological factors are perceptions and interpretations of work-related matters, while the social factors involve the influence of the social context and the interpersonal factors. These concepts have merged into the term “psychosocial”. The expression “psychosocial work environment” can be divided into three components, to make this easier to understand:

1. Organization

The organization of the working environment can be defined as the individual’s relation to their duties and to others in the workplace, and the practical organization of work. This component emphasizes the external influences or stimuli at work. Here, one is concerned with specific characteristics of working conditions, such as if the workplace has an organizational chart, if the premises are adequate in terms of equipment available, the expectations and shift work schedule are clearly explained, etc. For example, it is not good to work in a place where no one knows who is responsible, where the required tools are not in place and the expectations and working schedule are unclear. In addition, one can include management issues in this component. Good management is essential for a good working environment. A leader who lacks good leadership skills can make a workplace totally unbearable. Another factor that fits under this component of psychosocial work environment is the phenomenon of “reorganization.” This can affect a work place significantly. Reorganization often means job cuts and changes, which again creates turmoil and uncertainty among employees. Such changes may also influence the health of workers.

Drawing illustrates a leader leading people The leader is important at a workplace. © Colourbox

2. Social interaction

Psychosocial working conditions are also determined by the interaction between environmental factors, other workers and the individual. Included here are “psychological effects” of the work. Collaboration and cooperation – or the lack thereof – are the consequences of how these interactions work. If there are many conflicts at work, this may reduce the overall productivity, and people will try to avoid working in such a place. Conflicts may also cause health problems among the workers. Insomnia and muscle pain (tensions) are common consequences of problems in the social life at the workplace.

Picture of both a vase and two faces What do you see here? The photo shows a vase for some persons, other persons see two faces. This demonstrates that we interpret things differently. © Colourbox

3. Individual perception

All people are unique. We do not perceive things in the same way. For example, if you look at the figure above, some of you will see two people looking at each other. Others will see a vase. (After you have been told, you can probably see both.) People are different, they perceive their surroundings differently. We cannot change our different personalities and ways of behaving, at least not very much! This is important to remember in working life. We have individual perceptions and evaluations, and these have consequences for health, well-being and performance for both ourselves and others. This is the reason why it is almost impossible to create the perfect work place. What is perfect for you is not perfect for me! I like the walls in my kitchen to be painted yellow, while my colleague wants them to be gray. This cannot be changed, but it helps if everyone is aware that differences in opinions exist. These differences stem from cognitive and emotional processes, as well as characteristics of the individual employee. This component of the psychosocial work environment emphasizes the worker’s individual interpretation; how external influences are perceived, processed and disseminated. When, for instance, health personnel are presented with a patient experiencing a conflict at work, it is important to remember this: any issue has always at least two sides.

The following three questions are very important for determining if one has a good working environment or not:

a. Is your work comprehensible? Do you know what is expected of you? Do you know what is happening at work, what will happen, and why? Is it your experience that decisions at work will be made and implemented arbitrarily, without you receiving any prior explanation?

b. Is your work manageable? Do you have the equipment and the assistance required for you to do your job? Is there a reasonable balance between demands and resources? Are you listened to and respected? Do you understand the goals for the activity you specifically perform?

c. Is your work meaningful? Do you understand the meaning of your work in a larger context? Do you understand what your efforts mean for the management, employees and even outside the workplace? One thing is to tell the world that you are putting bricks on top of each other at your work. Another thing is to tell the world that you are building a cathedral. There are differences between these two perceptions of a work place. The work is the same, but the life of the cathedral builder is more likely to be a better one than that of the person only concentrated upon the bricks themselves.

A cathedral and a brick wall Are you building a cathedral or just a brick wall? The understanding of the work is important for the worker’s well-being. © Colourbox

Stress can be good for you

The term “stress” is most often used in a negative context. However, stress can also be good for you! Biologically our bodies have stress responses that are triggered by stressful situations, such as something in the work environment. These stress responses are how our bodies respond to a challenge. A high stress level occurs for instance when you meet a lion. Then you need your body to react quickly; either fight or flee! We have an autonomic nervous system that deals with such situations. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in the “fight or flee” reaction, and helps us (at least most of the times) out of awkward situations. This is a stress reaction! We also have a parasympathetic nervous system that helps us return to normal after the situation has been solved. A lion is not needed to start a stress reaction. Less dangerous environmental factors can trigger a stress reaction; in fact any challenge can do so! This is a part of life, we are challenged and we meet the challenges. This can be very satisfactory for workers, if they are able to meet challenges successfully. It is a positive experience to feel that one has done a good job or that one has managed well! It gives one joy and positive self-esteem. No stress at all would mean a boring life for us. However, too much stress can exhaust us. We need to find a balance between performance and demands; an optimal performance level. Such a balance is needed in a good psychosocial work environment. In addition, we need to remember that all workers are different and must be treated differently as well.

Performance-and-Demand curve.jpg The relationship between performance and demands; a “stress” curve.
© University of Bergen

Individual health effects

If employees experience adverse psychosocial factors at their workplace, they may ultimately experience various health ailments. These can be relatively innocuous ailments such as a few days of headaches or neck pain, or they may be a contributing cause to certain chronic diseases.

Diseases of this type are for example:
  • Cardiovascular diseases: High blood pressure, heart attack.
  • Gastro-intestinal diseases: Gastritis, ulcerative colitis.
  • Mental diseases: Anxiety, depression.
  • Sleep disorders
  • Musculoskeletal diseases: Myalgia, tendinitis, pain conditions.
  • Immunological effects: An increased incidence of infections, indicating impaired immunity.

We think most persons have experience of these types of problems, such as having a headache after a situation such as working long hours on a major problem under time pressure. The headache usually fades away when leaving the job. If such situations continue at work every day, the symptoms may manifest themselves daily, and may become chronic – long-lasting. Many of these diseases are named “psychosomatic disorders”, meaning that although the symptoms are clearly somatic, while their development is connected with the psychological side of life. The mechanisms behind the development of such diseases have been studied extensively. However, many of the factors involved remain poorly understood. Effects on the blood stream seem to be important, as environmental stress situations may shunt the blood stream to the brain and the large muscle groups, and away from other parts of the body. Hormones are affected, metabolism in the body is affected, and both the immune system and digestive systems may be influenced. All these changes may cause physical symptoms, and if the stress situation continues for longer periods, these may become chronic. All the described diseases related to negative psychosocial factors at work are multi-factorial, and many factors may play a role in their development. Also other factors may be important, such as the family situation, smoking, drug abuse or genetics. While it is often difficult to know which factors are most important, it is important to try to figure this out. Adverse conditions in the workplace can often be improved, and there is the potential to help the patient or worker.

© University of Bergen/Authors: B.E. Moen, G. Tjalvin
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Occupational Health in Developing Countries

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