Psychological wellbeing has a major impact on the productivity and work experiences of employees within safety-critical sectors. Yet much of the focus within global safety is on physical health, despite the clear recognition that mental health is one of the major challenges of the current century.
In a Rapid Evidence Assessment of psychological wellbeing and safety in five key infrastructure sectors – maritime, energy, construction, engineering, food and digital – we looked at the academic and grey literature over the past fifty years. From this a clear message emerged. Whilst many roles in these sectors involve hard physical work, it is feelings about the work environment rather than the physical nature of the work itself that are critical to psychological wellbeing.
Psychosocial factors at work
Employees’ feelings about the work environment are centred around a range of psychosocial factors. These include things such as job security and satisfaction, excessive workloads, lack of control and influence, unclear communication and boring or repetitive work. Psychosocial factors arise from structural features of the way the work environment is organized. But they are experienced in very different ways by employees, depending on their role, age or experience. Each sector has its own unique combination of psychosocial factors.
Drawing upon a novel approach to mental health known as the Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF), we were able to model the way psychosocial factors impact on employees’ psychological wellbeing and behaviour. Initial perceptions of inequalities in the work environment (‘power’) create psychosocial challenges (‘threats’) through which employees understand and respond to daily workplace practices (‘meaning’).
Mapping the specific ways in which psychosocial challenges are created in the workplace and how employees respond to them provides insight into a safety climate and potential interventions. But in order to follow through on this, employers will need better systems for recording data around mental health which are sensitive to the stigma around declaring mental health conditions and transient fluctuations in mood compared to longer-term impacts.
Designing successful interventions for psychological wellbeing
Some approaches to psychological wellbeing focus primarily on supporting individual employees in coping with workplace stress. However, the evidence suggests that successful interventions across the five key infrastructure sectors have a holistic design. They focus on the structural factors in occupational settings and how these are experienced by specific groups of employees. Successful interventions also tend to have a sustained approach that is embedded in the long-term strategies of the organizations concerned. A good example here is the MATES initiative in the Australian construction industry.
Interventions need to aim for buy-in across all stakeholders within an organization. Well intentioned changes to workplace practices and conditions that are done without proper consultation can increase the perception of inequality and intensify rather than diminish psychosocial challenges. It is also critical to avoid the sense of piecemeal or tokenistic efforts to improve psychological wellbeing. The PTMF can help here in providing a framework for dialogue between managers, employees and other stakeholders around planning interventions.
Current and future challenges
We also looked at the evidence around the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution on psychological wellbeing and safety. The evidence here is mixed, but what is starting to emerge is some sense of the specific challenges and opportunities this offers. For example, the increasing use of smart technologies is negatively impacting on psychological wellbeing through increasing time pressures, work interruptions, multitasking and the erosion of work and life boundaries. But these technologies also offer innovative means to monitor mental health.
As employees in the five key infrastructure sectors begin to adjust to the new ways of working that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, the key psychosocial factors that impact on the psychological wellbeing of employees are a perception of clarity in the information provided and a feeling of being valued by employers. Managing successful transitions during and after the pandemic will require organizations to address both issues systematically.
In collaboration with Lloyds Register Foundation, we will be following up on this work by surveying how safety critical organizations have responded to and managed the COVID-19 working environment. We will seek to build an open access evidence base of best practice in this area.