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Read time11 mins

Psychosocial Risks: Causes and Damages

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How workplace stresses can lead to psychosocial damage

What do we mean by psychosocial damage?

Psychosocial damage refers to the negative impact on an individual’s psychological and social well-being resulting from various factors such as trauma, discrimination, social isolation, or economic hardship.

It affects an individual’s ability to cope with stress and regulate emotions. Psychosocial damage can lead to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How workplace stress can lead to psychosocial damage

Watch the video to understand the different types of workplace stress, what we mean by psychosocial damage, and the effects that chronic or negative stress can have on the brain.

Watch the next video in this series here:

Part 2 – Post Traumatic Growth: Benefiting from stress

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Video Transcript

Psychosocial damage and its causes

Hi, Andrew from Sacs.

And welcome to video number one, in our eight video sequence on psychosocial risk.

The reason we put this together is a couple of main reasons.

Reason number one is that legislation across Australia, is now placing a greater emphasis on psychosocial risk, and it’s an expectation of organisations, that they will manage psychosocial risk.

But also we’re approached all the time, by ethical organisations, who seek to manage psychosocial risk appropriately, for reasons of wellbeing of their employees.

So let’s look at the topics, that will cover in this sequence.

In this video, dealing with the issue of psychosocial damage and its causes.

And then we move on to a range of topics, associated with the nature of psychosocial risk and how to address it.

What do we mean by psychosocial damage?

But to commence with this particular one, this is all about psychosocial damage and what do we mean by psychosocial damage?

Well, often it relates to things like anxiety, which is in the Australian workforce, at least the single most predominant psychological distress, in that workforce, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other forms of trauma and other psychological damage, triggered by the experience of stress.

And that can be very various. I mean, we’ve seen where things like stressful experiences, have triggered things like obsessive compulsive disorders.

So psychosocial damage can be extremely various.

Origins of psychosocial

But first, let’s talk about the term psychosocial.

Where does it come from? Well, it seems that it was used first, in the late 1800s or the early 1900s. And what we’re talking about the psycho bit, is all about what goes on between the ears.

So psycho component could be personality and we know, for instance, I will say later on in this sequence of videos, that things like resilience, are partially dependent on genetic factors, but then the social bit is the interactions, that you have in your workplace.

So psychosocial wellbeing comes from recruiting people, who are apt to do the job, that they have been recruited to do.

In other words, their psychologically equipped and prepared to do that, including trained appropriately and then they experience appropriate interactions, in their workplace.

Now, a figure that’s often quoted in recent research, is that to have high levels of engagement at work or satisfactory levels of engagement, you have to experience about one negative experience, for about six positive experiences.

The positive negative balance is very important.

Psychosocial wellbeing happens, when you have an appropriate number of positive experiences, against an acceptable or digestible, if you want to put it that way, number of negative experiences.

Negative experiences are far more powerful psychologically, than positive experiences.

So they have to be outweighed, by the sheer number of the positive experiences.

The power of stress

Let’s talk about stress.

Stress comes in two forms, acute or chronic.

So acute stress is where something happens, to make you stressed, but if stress continues for long enough, it can become chronic.

In other words, it will kind of rewrite your nervous system, to the point where it becomes enduring and you end up with phenomena, like post-traumatic stress disorder, where people are really experiencing nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, those kinds of things, that take them back to the stressful or traumatic event.

So stress is powerful.

If you experience it for long enough, it will become acute.

And a figure of six months is often quoted, that if you’re in unremitting stress for six months, you run the risk of that stress becoming chronic.

The brain’s response to stress

Now, how the brain responds to stress, it’s really down to the thing called, the fight, flight and freeze response.

The fight response evolved, so that if we are attacked by something, we would fight back.

The flight response, well, that’s to do with running away.

And the freeze response is really, I will hunker down and hope that I don’t get noticed.

Now, this happens of course, in the animal kingdom all the time.

But the fight, flight and freeze response, is all driven by a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is way down the back here, in what we call the old brain.

And the amygdala has a number of biological effects on us, on a day-to-day basis. So when a person experiences stress, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

You get the fight, flight or freeze response, your pupils dilate, and you might wonder why that happens.

But historically, the greatest threats to human beings, were at dusk because that was the time, that you could be attacked by predators.

So if your pupils dilate what that means, is that your peripheral vision is better, particularly under low light conditions.

Interesting, isn’t it? How biological and historic the response is. I mean, your pupil still dilate, but we don’t tend to get eaten by saber-toothed tigers anymore.

Another thing that happens is a chemical response.

So you will get a surge of adrenaline, which makes you stronger for a short period of time.

You’ll also get cortisol, which is a stress chemical and in fact, enough cortisol can in fact be carcinogenic.

You’ll also get things like suppression, of your immune system, and you might wonder why, but it’s all to do with the short termism of the response.

In other words if I have to fight a saber-toothed tiger, who cares about getting a cold, well, in fact who cares about getting cholera? My needs are much more short term.

And that’s why when people are stressed for a long time, they will become ill because their immune system, has been suppressed and so they’re more prey to, the types of virus and bacteria, that they’re going around at that particular time.

When under stress, we also know that our brains are less productive and have less capacity to think creatively.

Effects of chronic stress

And we do know also that the effects of chronic stress, can in fact change the nature of your nervous system.

If you’re under enough stress and trauma for long enough, what will happen is that the white cells, come to predominate the connective tissue, and that literally means that you’re not so good, at having creative thoughts in coming up with solutions.

But as well as that, it has an effect on what is now called, the window of tolerance. A person’s window of tolerance, is where they can deal with issues, cognitively and rationally.

And if the stress becomes too high, then you move into hyper arousal and that’s where you’re in the fight and flight response.

And so your response might well be, a little bit more extreme that is necessary.

You might become angry or you might become fearful.

You might quit your job, you might stay home, when you’re not really sick, something of that nature.

On the other hand, if you fall into freeze mode, what that means is that that’s hypo arousal and that’s where the organism is hunkering down.

When people have been stressed enough for long enough, their window of tolerance actually shrinks and they become less able to cope, with the broader range of experiences, they become literally less resilient.

Now, when that happens, that person needs often support, from a clinical point of view, to try to widen that window of tolerance somewhat, so that they can become more resilient and more able to cope with a wider range of challenges.

Work-related psychosocial hazards

So here’s a list of work-related psychosocial hazards.

This comes from WorkSafe Victoria, but in fact the various WorkSafe authorities, right across Australia agree pretty much, what these risks are.

The first mentioned is low job control.

Now, these are not in order of severity, it’s just the first thing mentioned.

So when a person has low levels of empowerment, that is a stress order, that makes them more at risk psychosocially.

High and low job demands.

We’ll talk in the next couple of videos about job demands and the effect that they have on people.

Poor support, poor organisational change management, poor organisational justice, where people are treated unfairly.

Low recognition and reward.

Low role clarity.

Later, in this sequence of a videos, we’ll be telling you about a job definition technique or a strategy definition technique as well, which has been shown to be very effective, in creating clarity for people.

Poor workplace relationships, where colleagues are acting a way that is inimical, to our wellbeing.

Poor environmental conditions.

So that’s the facilities that we’re working in.

Remote and isolated work.

Well, we know that more people are working remotely now, than has been the case ever before across the world.

I mean, the proportion post covid, of people who’ve remained working from home, is way higher than it was pre covid.

And for many people that’s a blessing.

But for some people, it’s a stressor.

Violent or traumatic events, these are all work stressors.

Good stressors – challenge demands

Now, work stressors in effect come in two types, good stressors and bad stressors.

Now, what do I mean by good stressors?

Good stressors are stressors, that cause us to be appropriately challenged at work.

If you’ve ever been in a job, where you simply don’t have enough challenge, you’ll know that that’s not good for you.

That strangely having not enough stress is a stressor.

For most people, in most circumstances, increasing workload causes an increase in wellbeing.

Of course, there are people who are overworked and for whom the extra bit of work, will be their the straw that breaks the camels back.

We totally understand that.

But if you take thousands of people, who’ve increased their workload, in general there’s an increase.

That’s why it’s a good stressor in their wellbeing.

Pressure of processing lots of information.

So that’s an intellectual challenge and for most people, that’s a good thing.

That increases their levels of wellbeing.

And pressure of problem solving.

Similarly, an intellectual challenge working stuff out and that’s why computer games are so popular, because in general they’re problem solving and the human brain loves to problem solve.

So those are positive stressors.

Bad stressors – hindrance demands

But there are also negative stressors, what are called hindrance demands.

In other words they’re hindering your ability, to do the job well.

Lack of social support, which is things like I’m too isolated.

Job insecurity, things like inadequate resources.

Role ambiguity and role conflict, contrary requirements from people around you.

Another very substantial negative stressor at work, is conflict where people are arguing with each other, bickering clearly not getting along, perhaps being unkind to one another.

When we see that the mirror cells in our brain, cause us to soak up that grief and we run the risk of being damaged by that experience.

Here’s a model of stress that’s often used, in contemporary understanding of this issue in psychology.

It comes in two forms.

Components of stress – pressurised and distressed

The first is pressurised stress.

That’s where I feel that things are mounting up on me.

That’s where I think, well, maybe I’ve got too much to do or maybe I’ve got too many issues to deal with or maybe the complexity of what I’m dealing with is, just inappropriate and it’s starting to get on top of me.

That’s pressurised stress.

The second is distress and psychological distress is where you are being caused, by the circumstances to become anxious or angry or depressed.

And those negative old brain emotions, those amygdala type of emotions, certainly can cause you to be damaged, if you experience them for long enough.

So the next video in the sequence, will be about post-traumatic growth, cause stress is not all bad.

It can actually improve you.

So join us for the next video to see how.

Watch the next video in this series to find out more about Management of Psychosocial Risks:

Part 2 – Post Traumatic Growth: Benefiting from stress

And if you’d like some help with promoting psychosocial wellbeing, contact us about our Wellbeing Survey.

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