Human Resources Procedures/Guidelines
Guidelines for Conducting Psychosocial Risk Assessments

Relates to: Psychological Health and Safety Policy
Category: Health and Safety
Sub-Category: General

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Backdround and Introduction

The City’s Psychological Health and Safety Policy was developed soon after the introduction of the CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 Standard - Psychological health and safety in the workplace - Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation in 2013. This standard is a set of voluntary guidelines, tools and resources intended to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work.

The City’s policy establishes the following responsibilities for City divisions:

  • Assess risk factors of greatest relevance to mental health and psychological safety within the division (consulting with employees and joint health and safety committees/health and safety representatives in this process)
  • Determine whether improvements are needed
  • Identify opportunities for change and/or current strengths on which to build and record the findings

What is a Psychosocial Risk Assessment?

A psychosocial risk assessment examines organizational factors that impact organizational health and the health of employees in a workplace. The goal is to identify ways to improve psychosocial work environments for workers.

The City's psychosocial risk assessment tool was developed by the Mental Health Working Group of the OHSCC with the aim of assessing and improving psychosocial work environments

Purpose of a work-related Psychosocial Risk Assessment

The purpose of a psychosocial risk assessment is to identify preventative and protective measures at the organizational level, not the individual level. It is not intended to identify counselling or other needs for specific individuals who are experiencing difficulty in coping, mental health issues or mental illness. These needs must be addressed, but not through the psychosocial risk assessment.

Psychosocial risk assessments are based on thirteen psychosocial risk factors which are identified in the Psychological health and safety in the workplace standard. A definition of each risk factor can be found on the City’ Mental Wellness web page.

When there is an actual or perceived imbalance between the demands made on people and their resources or ability to cope with those demands, workplace stress occurs. Stress is not a disease in itself, but prolonged exposure to it may reduce effectiveness at work and may cause ill-health. The symptoms of stress in organizations can result in increased absenteeism, high staff turnover, disciplinary problems, violence and psychological harassment, reduced productivity, as well as reduced attention, mistakes and accidents. Factors, both inside and outside the workplace, can influence workers’ personal health. Exposures and activities outside work such as financial problems, unhealthy lifestyles, may have an impact on performance at work. Not all manifestations of stress at work can be considered as work-related stress. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that psychosocial risk factors at work can contribute to stress in workers.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act has a general duty clause which applies to the City, as an employer, and to supervisors, namely that they are to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker”.

What are Psychosocial Risk Factors?

Psychosocial risk factors are organizational factors that impact the psychological safety and health of employees. These factors include the way work is carried out and the context in which work occurs. Thirteen psychosocial risk factors are identified in the Standard, as follows:

  1. Psychological support
  2. Organizational culture
  3. Clear leadership and expectations
  4. Civility and respect
  5. Psychological job demands
  6. Growth and development
  7. Recognition and reward
  8. Involvement and influence
  9. Workload management
  10. Engagement
  11. Work/life balance
  12. Psychological protection from violence, bullying and harassment
  13. Protection of physical safety

A definition of each of these psychosocial risk factors is provided later in these guidelines. Additionally, informative animation videos from Ottawa Public Health explaining these 13 psychosocial risk factors are linked to the City’s Mental Wellness web page.

The guidelines that follow and the tools and resources that are referenced in these guidelines are intended to assist City divisions and workplaces in conducting psychosocial risk assessments and in identifying measures that can mitigate psychosocial risk factors in the workplace.

How to conduct a Psychosocial Risk Assessment

A psychosocial risk assessment involves the same principles and processes as risk assessments for other occupational risks. The stepwise approach commonly used includes five steps:

  1. Identify the hazards and those at risk
  2. Assess and prioritize the risks. Decide who might be harmed and how. Decide whether existing precautions are adequate or whether more controls are required
  3. Decide on preventive action and record your findings
  4. Take action
  5. Monitor and review

When completing a psychosocial risk assessment there are additional key elements to consider. Support from all employees assists with identifying psychosocial risk factors in the workplace. Senior management support is crucial. Senior management needs to provide the necessary resources for conducting the risk assessment and for undertaking improvements identified through the risk assessment. Managers at all levels have a role to play in addressing workplace psychosocial risk factors by adopting or maintaining a supportive leadership style.

Another key aspect of the risk assessment process is consultation with employees and involvement of employees in the process of identifying psychosocial risk factors and potential remedial actions within their workplace. Employees are the ones who are more familiar with their own job and the ones who should be involved in implementing any changes to it; therefore, they are more likely to suggest relevant interventions to tackle specific issues.

Step 1: Identify psychosocial risk factors and those at risk

This first step involves understanding how the work is done and how harm could be caused. It is important to distinguish a risk factor from risk. The term “risk factor” in a psychosocial risk assessment is synonymous with the term “hazard” in a physical risk assessment. The presence of a risk factor or a hazard in and of itself does not necessarily present a risk, as long as adequate controls are in place to protect the employee from the risk factor or hazard. A risk is the chance, high or low, that somebody may be harmed by the hazard. The table below outlines 13 risk factors and, by way of definition, identifies what a workplace in which these risk factors are addressed looks like.

Risk Factor Definition of a workplace in which this risk factor is addressed
Level of psychological support A workplace where co-workers and supervisors are supportive of employees' psychological and mental health concerns, and respond appropriately as needed. For some organizations, the most important aspect of psychological support may be to protect against traumatic stressors at work.
Organizational culture A workplace characterized by trust, honesty and fairness. Organizational culture, in general, are basic assumptions held by a particular group. These assumptions are a mix of values, beliefs, meanings and expectations that group members hold in common and that they use as cues to what is considered acceptable behaviour and how to solve problems.
Leadership and expectations A workplace where there is effective leadership and support that helps employees know what they need to do, how their work contributes to the organization and whether there are impending changes.
Level of civility and respect A workplace where employees are respectful and considerate in their interactions with one another, as well as with customers, clients and the public. Civility and respect are based on showing esteem, care and consideration for others, and acknowledging their dignity.
Psychological job fit A workplace where there is a good fit between employees' interpersonal and emotional competencies, their job skills and the position they hold. A good fit means that the employees possess the technical skills and knowledge for a particular position as well as the psychological skills and emotional intelligence (self-awareness, impulse control, persistence, self-motivation, empathy and social deftness) to do the job. Note that a subjective job fit (when employees feel they fit their job) can be more important than an objective job fit (when the employee is assessed and matched to the job).
Growth and development A workplace where employees receive encouragement and support in the development of their interpersonal, emotional and job skills. This type of workplace provides a range of internal and external opportunities for employees to build their repertoire of competencies. It helps employees with their current jobs as well as prepares them for possible future positions.
Recognition and reward A workplace where there is appropriate acknowledgement and appreciation of employees' efforts in a fair and timely manner. This element includes appropriate and regular financial compensation as well as employee or team celebrations, recognition of years served, demonstrating/acting according to organizational values, and/or milestones reached.
Involvement and influence A workplace where employees are included in discussions about how their work is done and how important decisions are made. Opportunities for involvement can relate to an employee's specific job, the activities of a team or department, or issues involving the organization as a whole.
Workload management A workplace where tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available. A large workload is often described by employees as being the biggest workplace stressor (i.e., having too much to do and not enough time to do it). It is not only the amount of work that makes a difference but also the extent to which employees have the resources (time, equipment, support) to do the work well.

A workplace where employees enjoy and feel connected to their work and where they feel motivated to do their job well. Employee engagement can be physical (energy exerted), emotional (positive job outlook and passionate about their work) or cognitive (devote more attention to their work and be absorbed in their job).

Engaged employees feel connected to their work because they can relate to, and are committed to, the overall success and mission of their company. Engagement is similar to, but should not be mistaken for job satisfaction, job involvement, organizational commitment, psychological empowerment, and intrinsic motivation.

Work/life balance

A workplace where there is recognition of the need for balance between the demands of work, family and personal life. This factor reflects the fact that everyone has multiple roles employees, parents, partners, etc. These multiple roles can be enriching and allow for fulfillment of individual strengths and responsibilities, but conflicting responsibilities can lead to role conflict or overload. Greater workplace flexibility enables employees to minimize work-life conflict by allowing them to accomplish the tasks necessary in their daily lives.

Work-life balance is a state of well-being that allows a person to effectively manage multiple responsibilities at work, at home and in their community. Work-life balance is different for everyone.

Psychological protection A workplace free from violence, bullying and harassment. Workplace psychological safety is demonstrated when employees feel able to put themselves on the line, ask questions, seek feedback, report mistakes and problems, or propose a new idea without fearing negative consequences to themselves, their job or their career. A psychologically safe and healthy workplace actively promotes emotional well-being among employees while taking all reasonable steps to minimize threats to employee mental health.
Protection of physical safety This factor includes the work environment itself. Steps can be taken by management to protect the physical safety of employees. Examples include policies, training, appropriate response to incidents or situations identified as risks, provision of safety equipment and a demonstrated concern for employees' physical safety.

There are a number of ways that managers can engage their employees in identifying psychosocial risk factors. The approach that is selected will in some part be based on the readiness of the workplace parties to participate meaningfully in the discussion. Consider some of the following approaches to start the conversation:

  1. Employee Survey (External)

    A questionnaire that employees can complete anonymously may be used. The City does not have a formal City questionnaire that can be completed electronically for this purpose. There are, however, a number of surveys that are externally available, with external analysis provided. A division may choose to purchase this service and use the results to initiate discussions with employees. Well-recognized and respected surveys include:

  2. Employee Survey (Internal)

    A division may choose to use one of these survey tools by having employees complete it anonymously and manually, with the results tabulated in house. These results can be used to initiate discussions with employees.

  3. Employee Engagement Survey

    An Employee Engagement Survey was completed in the fall of 2015. Many of the questions in that survey relate to psychosocial risk factors, including engagement, work/life balance, reward and recognition. Results are available down to the division, section and often unit level. These results can be used to initiate discussions with employees, if this has not already taken place.

  4. General Awareness

    During staff meetings, tailgate meetings or other team meetings, one or more of the videos regarding psychosocial risk factors that are available on the City’s web page can be viewed. The content of the videos can be used to initiate a discussion with employees regarding whether the psychosocial risk factor(s) covered in the video(s) are present in their workplace.

    Regardless of the approach that is used to start the conversation with employees, the questions that should be posed (with the answers documented) regarding identification of psychosocial risk factors are:

    1. Is the psychosocial risk factor present in the workplace?
    2. What employee groups encounter/experience this psychosocial risk factor?

Other information that may assist in identifying groups of workers who may be at risk include data regarding absences from work, staff turnover, incidents of violence or harassment, employee complaints, etc. Appendix A, entitled “Information Sources to Assist Psychosocial Risk Assessments” was developed to assist divisions/workplaces in compiling and recording these types of data. As noted, none of the information sources referenced in this chart indicates a psychosocial risk or mental health issue. Rather, in combination, they may inform whether action to improve is needed and/or where attention might be focused.

Step 2: Assess and prioritize risks

This step is about deciding who might be harmed by the psychosocial risk factor, the likelihood of harm and the severity of harm. It may be necessary to gather supplementary data if existing data mentioned in Step 1 is not deemed sufficient to evaluate the risks and take action. The questions to consider are:

  1. How likely it is that a hazard will cause harm (e.g. number of people reporting exposure to the risk factor and linking that to adverse effects, etc.)?
  2. How serious that harm is likely to be (e.g. is there a link between exposure to the risk factor and adverse outcomes e.g. high workload and sickness absence, violence of harassment and complaints or grievances)?
  3. How often (and how many) workers are exposed to the risk?

The additional feedback that could be sought in discussions with employees would be:

  1. What is the likelihood that employees may be harmed by this risk factor? It is understood that there are not objective criteria by which this can be measured for psychosocial risk factors (unlike physical risk factors). The intent of this question is to gain a better understanding of employee perceptions.
  2. Based on the nature of the work performed, is it possible to eliminate this risk factor from the workplace?

Once this information is obtained, list the risks in order of importance and use the list in drawing up an action plan.

Step 3: Decide on preventive actions

A risk assessment is the first step to successful risk management. After completing the risk assessment, preventive measures need to be taken in order of priority, involving employees in the process. Employees will be able to bring their knowledge, experience and understanding of the activity. They will have an understanding of exactly how the work is carried out and will look at it from a different perspective from their manager or supervisor. Questions to be answered, in consultation with employees, include:

  1. Are the measures that are in place adequate to address the psychosocial risk factor and to minimize the risk of employees being harmed?
  2. If not, what measures do you believe should be put in place to minimize the risk of employees being harmed?

In the event that management and employees are experiencing difficulty in identifying measures to minimize individual psychosocial risks, Appendix B entitled “Workplace Psychosocial Risk Factors and Controls/Measures Checklist" has been developed to assist in identifying the types of measures/controls that may be considered. Appendix B is also a useful tool for divisions/workplaces to record the measures/controls that have been identified through the risk assessment process as appropriate for their work environments. An action plan is then needed for those initiatives that are identified.

Step 4: Take action

The purpose of a psychosocial risk assessment is to identify preventive and protective measures at the organizational level, not the individual level. It is not intended to identify counselling or other needs for specific individuals who are experiencing difficulty in coping, mental health issues or mental illnesses. These needs should be addressed but not through the psychosocial risk assessment process.

Effective implementation of measures to minimize psychosocial risk involves the development of a plan specifying: i) who does what; ii) when a task is to be completed; and iii) the means allocated to implement the measures.

Communication of the findings to all employees is needed to ensure that everyone involved in the activity, or exposed to the risk is made aware of the findings of the risk assessment and the actions taken to solve issues.

Step 5: Monitor and review

The effectiveness of the measures taken to prevent or minimize psychosocial risk should be monitored. It is necessary to evaluate any action taken to establish what works best, and to assess the effectiveness of all solutions put in place.

A reassessment will be needed when a significant change occurs, because new hazards may emerge. Preventive measures in place may no longer be needed because the change has addressed psychosocial risk factors or may be insufficient due to the introduction of new risk factors.

Documentation of the assessment

The risk assessment for psychosocial risks should be recorded. Such a record can be used to:

  • Pass information to the persons concerned (employees, health and safety committees or representatives, other managers etc.)
  • Assess whether necessary measures have been introduced; and revise measures if circumstances change.

Approved by

Occupational Health and Safety Coordinating Committee (OHSCC), April 18, 2018

Date Approved

April 18, 2018

Related Information

Psychological Health and Safety Policy

Psychologically Safe Leader Assessment


Appendix A - Information Sources to Assist Psychosocial Risk Assessments.pdf (241 Kbytes)
Appendix B - Workplace Psychosocial Risk Factors and Controls Checklist.docx (47 Kbytes)
Steps in Preparing for and Conducting Psychosocial Risk Assessments- draft v.2.docx (23 Kbytes)

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