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Experts: action needed to combat bad psychosocial work environments

| Text: Marie Preisler

A Nordic proposition to systematically measure businesses’ psychosocial work environments is getting expert backing. But the businesses must also play their part, and hiring a consultant is not always the best solution.

Nordic businesses should systematically measure and publish data on psychosocial work environments, and there is a need to highlight good examples of companies which have improved their psychosocial work environments.

That is what a new report from the Nordic Council of Ministers recommends, and leading experts in stress and psychosocial work environments agree. They also encourage businesses to get better at solving psychosocial work environment problems. Measures which are not followed by action can often make problems worse, says one of Denmark’s leading stress researchers, Naja Hulvej Rod. She teaches at the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen, and heads the Copenhagen Stress Research Centre. This is a joint venture between the University of Copenhagen, the National Research Centre for the Working Environment and Bispebjerg Hospital's labour health clinic.

“Many businesses are already measuring their psychosocial work environment, and in Denmark all businesses with employees must produce a written workplace assessment (APV), and these can include psychosocial work environment issues. But it is important to recommend to the businesses that they produce more systematic measurements of the psychosocial work environment. They should also become better at solving psychosocial problems, says Naja Hulvej Rod.

In her view many businesses lack the skills to solve psychosocial work environment problems. Many leaders simply do not know much about what to do with issues like high levels of stress in the workplace, or how to deal with workers who feel they do not have good contact with their leader. 

Good measuring tools

The proposal to systematically gather data on the psychosocial work environment is part of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ new report ‘Nordic Growth Sectors – How can working life policies contribute to improving the framework conditions’. The report identifies the drivers for growth in Nordic growth sectors and points to the work environment as a crucial factor. It recommends a readjustment of Nordic work environment policies in order to improve the psychosocial work environment. 

The report recommends businesses to systematically gather and publish data for ‘key performance indicators’ of psychosocial well-being, which in the long run can be used to create national work environment barometers.

The report’s recommendation to measure psychosocial well-being at work in a more systematic manner is also supported by Reiner Rugulies, Professor of psychosocial work environment research at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark (NFA). He heads the project group ‘Psychological well-being and work’ (PIVA), which looks at links between the psychosocial work environment, psychological well-being, health and working ability.  

“It would be really good if also small and medium sized businesses to a greater extent measured the psychosocial work environment more systematically, and there are already a range of great tools which can be used for this,” says Reiner Rugulies. 

One of those tools is a questionnaire called COPSOQ (Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire). It has been developed by the NFA, and businesses can download it for free – also in English. Right now the NFA works on a modernised version which includes new work environment factors like borderless work and illegal job tasks which so far have not been included, says Reiner Rugulies.  

Like Naja Hulvej Rod, he warns businesses against measuring psychosocial work environments without acting on any problems which might emerge:

“If you measure this year after year, without taking action, it could lead to frustrations which trigger even larger psychosocial work environment problems than the business had to begin with. Workers will see that the leadership is aware of the problems but does not react, making it seem indifferent.

Choose a consultant with care

A business which tries to solve psychosocial work environment problems with inefficient methods can also make things worse. This is a worrying tendency identified by the researchers:

“When management takes action it creates expectations among the staff that they are going to get a better psychosocial work environment, but sometimes the solutions are wrong because the company doesn’t know what it should be doing. Then things can easily get worse. One company which we have been looking at hired consultants, but they did not have the right solution for that company at all, and the problems grew,” says Reiner Rugulies.

A business will often employ external consultants when there are problems with the psychosocial work environment. Naja Hulvej Rod encourages businesses to show cation. The consultancy industry has quite a few cowboy operators.  

“Businesses will generally want to solve psychosocial work environment problems because they often lead to absence and a fall in productivity. But many consultants call themselves experts in psychosocial work environments without having the relevant professional training, and many businesses end up spending a lot of money on half-baked solutions which could make the situation worse for the staff this involves,” she says.

Start with management

She often sees smaller businesses in particular allowing external consultants to solve psychosocial work environment problems by exclusively focusing on what the individual worker can do himself or herself, without solving the basic structural problems in the workplace. This puts even more pressure on individual workers, because they will then feel that it is all their fault and their responsibility.  

She thinks many psychosocial problems are due to bad management or a bad leader. And that is a problem which can be very hard to solve – especially in small and medium sized businesses where the leader who is the source of the problems will also be the person who must figure out how they are to be solved.

Yet it is not necessarily expensive or difficult to improve the psychosocial work environment. Small interventions can often have great effect, thinks Naja Hulvej Rod. A large business which she has looked at has made considerable improvements to its psychosocial work environment simply by introducing a rule saying all workers throughout the organisation must have regular meetings with their line manager. 


Recommendations from the report for an improved psychosocial work environment:

  • Adjust work environment policies covering psychosocial well-being.
  • Make businesses systematically gather and publish data for ‘key performance indicators’ for psychosocial work environments, which in the long term can be used to develop national work environment barometers. 
  • Share best practice examples on a Nordic level of methods which businesses use to deal with and improve their psychosocial work environment. 
  • Initiate pan-Nordic measures to improve the psychosocial work environment, and improve coordination of the measures and cooperation on issues linked to the psychosocial work environment.
  • Focus on creating guidelines, methods or factors which can help workers improve their work-life balance, for instance through flexible working hours and flexible kindergarten opening hours.


Source: The Nordic Council of Ministers’ report ‘Nordic Growth Sectors – How can working life policies contribute to improving the framework conditions’, 2013

Psychosocial work environment

What is the psychosocial work environment?

It is a generic term describing non-physical work environment factors. It includes influence, social relations and fairness at work. Research shows that psychosocial work environment factors are important to workers’ health and well-being. 

Nordic policies for psychosocial work environments

Legislation differs between the Nordic countries, but all consider the psychosocial work environment to be important and that it should be measured on equal basis with the physical work environment. 


All businesses must provide systematic access to work environment data, including the psychosocial work environment. 


Similar to Norway. A new work environment law makes it compulsory to prioritise physical and psychological work environment issues.


Focus areas include psychological well-being at work and ways to handle work-related demands. 


Works systematically to adapt expectations and demands at work to meet workers’ abilities.

About the report ”Nordic Growth Sectors”

The end report of a part-project on economic growth areas during the Nordic cooperation ministers’ globalisation initiative Health and welfare 2010-1012.

Builds on registry data from the four largest Nordic countries with more than 1.4 million observations, a survey involving business leaders and staff and interviews with business leaders, the social partners and civil services in the Nordic countries. 

The report has been put together by consultancy firm DAMVAD together with a Nordic group of experts.


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