The authors of this article argue that the systematic promotion of a healthy psychosocial working environment is difficult when managers have too little knowledge of or interest in the issues. Stock photo: Shutterstock

Confusing terminology is preventing the promotion of a healthy working environment

Many managers believe that their efforts to promote a healthy psychosocial working environment are succeeding. According to a recent report, however, many employees do not agree. No surprise, perhaps, since it appears that people are defining the concept in different ways.

An interesting debate is currently going on in the daily Dagens Næringsliv about what the term ‘working environment’ actually entails. Is it possible to measure the health of a working environment based purely on its social impact (employee well-being), as the lawyer Ragnhild Bø Raugland maintains?

Or is it the case that the working environment also encompasses factors other than its social aspects, and can never be separated from the work itself, as is argued by Margrethe Schøning and Sture Rolfheim-Bye from the Norwegian Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI)?

Findings from a survey of Norwegian businesses’ work to promote a healthy psychosocial working environment, recently completed by our team here at SINTEF, tends to support the view held by Schøning and Rolfheim-Bye.

Friday coffee just isn’t enough

We have condensed the findings from our study into six recommendations that we offer to managers and their employees. One of them is that initiatives linked to the work itself are essential if complex working environment issues are to be properly addressed. Things cannot be resolved by social activities such as Friday coffee or quizzes alone.

However, according to our findings, the key prerequisite for the effective promotion of a healthy psychosocial working environment is to improve businesses’ understanding of exactly what the psychosocial working environment really is. Our study indicates that this understanding varies and, for some people, can be very limited.

As one manager reported during an interview; “If I mention the term ‘psychosocial’ to the guys in production, 60 per cent will have no idea of what I’m talking about”. 

Mismatch in perceptions should be ringing alarm bells

However, our study shows that there are also many managers who find the term difficult to grasp and, unsurprisingly, this only serves to hinder the work to promote a healthier working environment in their businesses.

In answer to the questionnaire that formed part of our study, almost seventy per cent of respondents report that the risk factor ‘high job demands’ (defined as deadline pressure, high levels of concentration and the need to take fast/complex decisions) is pervasive in their business.

However, employees report that the risk factors ‘too little feedback’ and ‘imbalance between work effort and reward’ were more prevalent than their managers think they are.

We also found that managers believe they have the psychosocial working environment much higher on their agenda than their employees are able to confirm. Is the reason for this that managers are working more systematically with this issue than they care to inform their employees? Or do managers believe that they are doing more than they actually are?

Right now, the answer has to be pure guesswork. Regardless, such a mismatch in perceptions should be causing alarm bells to be ringing in business managers’ ears.

No surprise that people are confused

Our findings are the result of in-depth interviews conducted with employees at 30 businesses, combined with responses to a questionnaire sent to 1,558 representative managers and employees at more than 1,100 Norwegian firms.

As researchers, we often use the term ‘psychosocial working environment’ as a collective expression for the organisation of work, interpersonal relationships in the workplace, the content of work and people’s perceptions of their work situation.

Others, such as the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority, operate with a distinction between what they refer to as the ‘psychosocial working environment’ and the ‘organisational working environment’. So, perhaps it is unsurprising that confusion reigns.

Too little systemisation

All the businesses that took part in our study report that they recognise psychosocial risk factors. However, only half of them say that the psychosocial working environment is included among their systematic efforts to promote issues related to health, safety and the environment (HSE).

The responses to our questionnaire single out many aspects of the psychosocial working environment as difficult to work with or to resolve using effective measures. These include issues related to management, mental health, cultural differences, stress, team spirit/collaboration within distributed businesses, as well as interpersonal conflicts between managers and employees, and between employees.

Participants in the study also highlight bullying and harassment as challenging issues that are difficult to address systematically in terms of identifying effective measures.

Lack of knowledge and interest

The majority of survey participants feel that it is difficult to judge whether the use of measures focusing on the psychosocial working environment has contributed towards reducing sickness absence.

Many also report that it is difficult to work systematically with issues related to the psychosocial working environment when managers, at various levels, have little knowledge of the issues and no interest in working with them.

We found that the most common perception of the psychosocial working environment was related to employee ‘well-being’, which of course can in itself be the result of a good working environment. However, we also encountered little reflection on exactly what it is that generates well-being and how this is linked to specific aspects of job content in the workplace.

Six recommendations for managers

The following are our six recommendations for managers doing their best to succeed in addressing these issues:

  • Make sure that you obtain a correct understanding of exactly what the psychosocial working environment entails
  • Select sources and methods that enable you to assess the truly relevant issues in your workplace
  • Work systematically at multiple levels
  • Involve your employee health and safety reps, union reps and other employees
  • Implement genuine working environment measures, not just well-being initiatives
  • Be patient – good things take time

By far our most important message is that all initiatives linked to the working environment, including its psychosocial aspects, must be focused on the work itself. It is also essential to boost knowledge about this fact among Norwegian businesses, not least because it is clear to us that not everyone is fully aware of its importance.

This article was first published in the daily Dagens Næringsliv on 18 January 2023 and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.