TUC survey shows rise in psychosocial hazards at work

The results of the Trades Union Congress’s eighth biennial survey of health and safety representatives in the UK indicate an increased prominence for psychosocial hazards in the workplace with stress, bullying/harassment and overwork among the top five hazards faced by workers. The results also show heightened levels of psychosocial hazards in the public sector and within larger organisations. The survey covers 27 psychosocial and physical hazards in the workplace.

About the survey

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) published the findings from its latest survey of health and safety representatives in October 2010. A major part of the survey is designed to provide an indication of the hazards that health and safety representatives must deal with and the problems they face.

The focus on health and safety report (226Kb PDF) is the eighth biennial survey and is based on data collected between May and June 2010 from 1,819 TUC health and safety representatives from across the UK. Around three-fifths (62%) of respondents work for organisations in the public sector and 35% work in the private sector. The survey covers a range of 27 psychosocial and physical hazards in the workplace.

Psychosocial hazards include a range of factors that can impact on the psychological well-being of workers. Stress at work is a prominent hazard (UK1004059Q). The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides the following definition:

Psychosocial risk factors are things that may affect workers’ psychological response to their work and workplace conditions (including working relationships with supervisors and colleagues).

HSE web page

Survey findings

A key finding is the rise in psychosocial hazards. The increase occurs against a more stable level (±5% change) of reported physical hazards, though these remain an area of concern for health and safety representatives.

Overwork and stress appear as distinct hazards in the survey for the first time in 2010. In previous years these were reported as the combined category of ‘stress and overwork’. Despite these changes to the survey design, both stress (62%) and overwork (29%) appear in the top five reported hazards in 2010. Three out of the top five workplace hazards were psychosocial, and bullying and harassment has almost doubled since 2008 (Table 1).

Table 1: Top five hazards of concern to workers, 2006–2010
Hazard % cited 2006 % cited in 2008 % cited in 2010
Stress n/a n/a 62
Stress and overwork 61 60 n/a
Bullying/harassment 15 20 37
Back strains 28 31 33
Slips, trips and falls on the level 27 33 32
Overwork n/a n/a 29

Notes: Prior to 2010 ‘stress and overwork’ formed a combined single category.

The category ‘slips, trips and falls on the level’ is a physical hazard that occurs on a standing surface (for example floors and stairs) and is a distinct hazard from slips, trips and falls from a height (for example from ladders, etc.) which is covered in the UK by separate legislation (The Work at Height Regulations 2005).

Source: TUC (2010)

The rise in psychosocial hazards is again reflected in the arrival of bullying and harassment as the second most common hazard. The proportion of health and safety representatives reporting bullying and harassment has nearly doubled since 2008 with a rise from 20% to 37% in 2010.

The survey provides comparisons of workplace hazards by sector and by workplace size. Table 2 shows the findings across the public and private sectors. Stress and bullying/harassment are more common in the public sector than in the private sector; the incidence of overwork is similar for both sectors.

Table 2: Incidence of top five workplace hazards by sector
Hazards Public Private
Stress 68% 54%
Bullying/harassment 40% 33%
Back strains 32% 33%
Slips, trips and falls on the level 29% 41%
Overwork 32% 33%

Source: TUC (2010)

The survey also indicates that psychosocial hazards are more common in larger workplaces. Both stress and bullying/harassment show sharp increases between organisations with over 200 employees and organisations with over 1,000 employees (Table 3).

Table 3: Top five workplace hazards by workplace size
  No. of employees
Hazards <50 50–100 >100 >200 >1,000
Stress 52% 62% 62% 63% 71%
Bullying/ harassment 31% 33% 29% 38% 48%
Back strains 31% 37% 37% 32% 31%
Slips, trips and falls on the level 31% 28% 33% 36% 31%
Overwork 27% 26% 28% 29% 33%

Source: TUC (2010)

The report adds evidence to the growing prominence of psychosocial hazards in the workplace and speculates that the increased tiers of management seen in larger organisations could contribute to higher levels of stress and bullying/harassment.

Commentary

The TUC focus on health and safety report demonstrates the growing presence of psychosocial hazards in the workplace. It emphasises the prevalence of stress in the workplace as one of the leading hazards at work. The contrast between the incidences of physical hazards, compared with psychosocial, is significant. However, the HSE notes: As well as leading to stress, which is a hazard in its own right, psychosocial risk factors can lead to [physical] musculoskeletal disorders.’ This observation echoes the interrelationships seen between various types of workplace hazard (as seen in other European countries SE1007019I, AT0912019I, DK1005019I).

Reference

TUC (2010), Focus on health and safety. Trade union trends survey. TUC biennial survey of safety reps 2010 (227Kb PDF), Trades Union Congress, London.

Alex Wilson, IRRU, University of Warwick

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