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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Taking the pulse

TIM BENTLEY and DAVID TAPPIN introduce the New Zealand Workplace Barometer project to monitor psychosocial risks and their impact.

There is considerable evidence that psychosocial risks are a leading cause of lost-time from work, as well as reduced levels of engagement and productivity, due to their influence on mental health and depression, psychological distress and absenteeism.

Reports from the European Union estimate psychosocial risks to account for as much as 50-60% of all lost time (EU-OHSA), while recent longitudinal research from Australia has provided strong evidence of the high social and economic costs of a poor psychosocial work environment.

Psychosocial risk factors include aspects of work organisation that are a result of human action and have the potential to cause psychological harm. These include job design, the organisation and management of work, and relational factors. Changes in the nature of work arising from technological advancement, globalisation, and a 24/7 culture have potential to increase the risk of psychological harm to workers, while a growing proportion of workers are ageing, on insecure work contracts, or vulnerable due to a range of conditions that influence their susceptibility to psychosocial risk.

Research indicates that New Zealand workers are highly vulnerable to psychosocial workplace problems, placing a considerable burden on the economic and social wellbeing of society. Until now, there has been no comprehensive approach to understanding or preventing psychosocial risk in New Zealand.


During 2017, Massey University’s Healthy Work Group developed a programme known as the New Zealand Workplace Barometer (NZWB). The NZWB is designed to provide longitudinal monitoring and surveillance of exposure to psychosocial risks among a large representative sample of New Zealand workers.

The NZWB is based on consultation with two WHO Collaborating Centres in Occupational Health which specialise in psychosocial risk, on evidence from the published scholarly literature, and on findings from recent longitudinal Australian research.

The NZWB has been developed to examine the impacts of exposure to psychosocial risk (assessed through the measurement of psychosocial safety climate, alongside specific aspects of psychosocial risk) on important individual and organisational outcomes, notably: depression and mental health, psychological distress, sickness absence, performance and engagement.

Year 1 of the NZWB Programme is to be implemented in early 2018 via a quantitative on-line survey across a large representative sample of New Zealand workers from a broad range of occupational groups. The findings will allow us to assess the extent of mental health-related problems amongst the workforce, the level of absenteeism attributable to psychosocial risk, and the influence of psychosocial safety climate on risks such as stress and workplace bullying.

The NZWB will inform government policy and will have implications for policy and organisational practice, particularly around measures to improve psychosocial safety climate, psychosocial hazards, reduce exposure to psychosocial hazards, and the costs of not doing so for individuals, organisations and the national social and economic wellbeing. The NZWB model is shown above.


Psychosocial hazards are most commonly evaluated using survey tools across a sample of the working population, as described above for the NZWB. However, such an approach is of less use to organisations looking to assess and manage their psychosocial hazards and the risks they pose to workers. This study concerns a qualitative health and safety culture assessment tool and its application to the issue of psychosocial hazards. Health and safety culture is defined by Cooper (2000) as “… the sub-facet of organisational culture that is thought to affect members’ attitudes and behaviour in relation to an organisation’s on-going health and safety performance”.

A positive health and safety culture is considered to be an important part of an effective safety management system (HSE, 1997) and it is proposed that the association between such systems and the organisation’s culture can be utilised in the management of psychosocial hazards.


As part of the NZWB programme, the Healthy Work Group has sought to design a tool by which the assessment of psychosocial safety culture can be made at the organisational level. The psychosocial safety culture assessment tool is designed for the assessment of eight key aspects of psychosocial safety culture, adapted from a framework for understanding the development of organisational safety culture (Parker et al., 2006) and the psychosocial taxonomy developed by Cox (1993). They include:

  • • 
    top management commitment and prioritisation of psychological safety;
  • • 
    psychosocial hazard communication;
  • • 
    psychosocial hazard reporting;
  • • 
    interpersonal relationships;
  • • 
    employee involvement in psychosocial hazard management;
  • • 
    work content;
  • • 
    work demands and control; and
  • • 
    career and personal development.

Each aspect comprises a range of concrete and abstract aspects of psychosocial safety culture, and provides descriptors from which levels of psychosocial safety cultural development can be determined. The descriptors are designed to reflect the level of development across five levels of advancement, from pathological through to generative.

The levels of advancement for each of the eight aspects of psychosocial safety culture results in an analysis of the relative strengths and weaknesses in an organisation’s psychosocial risk management effort from a cultural perspective. The use of a qualitative methodology involves triangulation of findings from interviews, focus groups and archival data to assess both psychological/behavioural and structural/systems aspects of psychosocial safety culture, and utilizes self-assessment and expert-assessment methods.

The tool also provides the opportunity to understand the stories that have shaped the psychosocial safety culture within the organisation.


The efficacy of the tool to assess psychosocial safety culture in two different organisations is currently being evaluated. To our knowledge this is the only tool of its type and, based on the successful use of the general health and safety culture assessment tool upon which this tool is based, we expect to be able to offer organisations of any size and type a means of assessing their psychosocial safety culture internally, and to identify areas for improvement.

Tim Bentley is a professor of work and organisation in Massey University’s School of Management, and is a founding member of Massey’s Healthy Work Group. Associate Professor David Tappin teaches in Massey’s School of Management.

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