Employment | 05 July 2019

In the last decade, the manner in which work is organised and managed has suffered significant changes. This fact has caused either beneficial or harmful consequences, such as emerging psychosocial risks and new challenges. The main questions are: what are the psychosocial risks? What are their consequences for the workers and for the company? What are the main company liabilities? What are the employer’s obligations to eliminate or, at least, reduce these risks? What does the concept of well-being mean?

What are the psychosocial risks at work?

Psychosocial risks are defined as the interactions between job content, work organisation and management, and other environmental and organisational conditions, ie the social context. They can have a possible detrimental impact on workers’ physical, psychological and social health; and, in turn, on the health of an organisation, its productivity and reputation. There is a wide range of psychosocial risks on which Spanish case law is specially focused as regards their negative impact on the workers’ health.

To start with, job content is related to lack of variety or short work cycles, and with meaningless work, under use of skills and high uncertainty.

Secondly, work overload and work underload. Workload is classified as qualitative workload (difficulty of the task) and quantitative workload (amount of work that must be completed within a limited time).

Moreover, work schedule, which is considered in terms of shift work, or long and unsociable working hours.

Similar to this, poor interpersonal relationships at work, that refer to social or physical isolation, poor relationships with superiors, interpersonal conflict, and lack of social support.

Furthermore, another risk is the job role, which includes role ambiguity, role clarity and role conflict.

One of the psychosocial risks that is caused by globalisation and new technological systems and communication is hyper connectivity. This has the consequence of fatigue, mental exhaustion, overload of tasks, inability to keep up with the information received and channel it, and even addictive compulsion to check if a message has been ignored. Precisely, taking this into consideration Article 88 of the Spanish Data Protection Law has provided the workers’ right to digital disconnection.

Work stress is one of the main problems. What happens if this stress of the worker is not well managed? The consequence is that the stress grows bigger, and burnout ends up occurring, which is the result of a process of chronic occupational and organisational stress. It usually ends in a state of exhaustion and an unmotivating fatigue for work tasks.

Another syndrome is that of ‘bore out’, which is characterised by a situation of prolonged boredom at work, for various reasons such as repetitive tasks, monotony, loss of vocation, lack of stimulation and recognition.

Finally, the most recognised psychosocial risk is violence, which is caused by the interpersonal relationships between co-workers, either of the same or higher hierarchical rank. The International Labour Organization defines violence as ‘any type of aggressive or insulting behaviour, capable of causing physical or psychological harm or discomfort to its victims, whether these are intentional targets or innocent witnesses involved in a non-personal or accidental manner in the incidents’. In this group we can distinguish between three main types of psychological violence: discriminatory treatment; sexual harassment and harassment on grounds of sex; and workplace harassment or bullying.

What are the consequences of these psychosocial risks both for the workers and for the company?

It is evident that for the worker this means damage to both their physical and mental health (ie cardiovascular diseases, character disorders and depression, lack of adaptation to the relationship with the environment, greater susceptibility, distrust, isolation and deterioration of family relationships). For the company, it means a decrease in work performance, degradation in the work environment, absenteeism from work and other economic, social and organisational consequences.

Damage derived from psychosocial risk produces effects on the business, specifically in possible costs for various reasons, starting with sick leave (from a common disease to a labour accident) and continuing with fines imposed on the company for its breach of Prevention of Labour Risks legislation and with the surcharge for lack of health and safety measures, as well as potential labour claims on indemnification for damages and on constructive dismissal for violation of fundamental rights (ie integrity, intimacy, non-discrimination) and, in the worst-case scenario, resulting in a criminal proceeding.

Several cases have already appeared that have ended with a judgment condemning the company, ie the Supreme Court judgment of 4 March 2014 confirmed in favour of a worker diagnosed with major depression as a result of ‘mobbing’. This means for the employer a cost between 30% and 50% to pay, as a result of a labour accident or professional incident resulting from a violation of regulations on the Prevention of Labour Risks.

There is also the possibility that the worker files a claim against the company for compensation of damages caused in relation to non-compliance with regulations on prevention of psychosocial occupational risks. For this reason, the civil liability insurance for the company is important. In judgment number 768/2017 of the Supreme Court, dated 5 October 2017, it was determined that ‘our jurisprudence admits as an indicative criterion, for the purpose of fixing compensation for moral damages, the application of the Law of Breaches and Sanctions of the Social Order (the so-called LISOS)’.

In addition, if there is a very serious breach of the worker’s physical integrity, they will be entitled to file a claim for constructive dismissal under Article 50 of the Workers’ Statute for violation of fundamental rights, asking for the termination of the employment contract with the payment of compensation for unfair dismissal.

And, in the worst case, when the situation of harassment is of extraordinary seriousness, criminal responsibility may arise.

What are the main employer obligations to eliminate or reduce psychosocial risks?

First, the company, must ensure the safety and health of workers in all aspects related to work, as established in Article 14 of the Law on Prevention on Labour Risks. This can be done through evaluating the psychosocial factors that can have negative effects, having a global vision that contemplates such risks with an integrated approach, implementing preventive measures for their elimination or minimisation and finally informing and training staff.

There are several measures that can be adopted: a harassment protocol can be put in place, in which both the prevention and the approach to any situation of harassment in the company must be regulated; an equality plan to achieve equality of treatment between men and women and equality of opportunities, in such a way that gender discrimination is eliminated from the business; a protocol on digital disconnection, by which a worker, outside working hours, has the right to limit the use of technology to guarantee rest and vacation time. On the other hand, other conciliation policies can also be carried out, ie flexible schedule, promoting remote working, offering sports or school aids, medical insurance, pension plans… and other less typical, but also useful measures, may be put in place: sabbaticals, training programmes, surveys, mindfulness techniques, coaching sessions, voluntary medical examinations and workload assessments, and guidance on healthy eating, among others.

What does the concept of well-being mean?

All the measures above should achieve a state of job satisfaction and comfort for workers, which presents itself through good physical and mental well-being. It is a subjective experience that must be promoted by the company in order to increase individual feelings of fulfilment, purpose and meaning, which has the consequence of increasing productivity. Because of that, psychosocial risks increasingly are an important consideration in a business. n