Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Wicked Character of Psychosocial Risks: Implications for Regulation

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Wicked Character of Psychosocial Risks: Implications for Regulation

Article excerpt


Psychosocial risks are now widely acknowledged as a priority in occupational health and safety (OHS) (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2012). Mental and physical health problems associated with workplace psychosocial risk factors are a significant, well-documented health issue (Cox et al., 2008; Goh et al., 2015; Leka et al., 2008; Leka et al., 2010).

The research-based understanding of psychosocial risks has evolved from many quarters over a long period (Karasek, 1979; Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Siegrist, 1996). The awareness of and focus on psychosocial risks as a regulatory topic have grown slowly over many years. Norway was the first country to enact legislation focusing on the psychosocial work environment (Gustavsen, 1977), and even at that time, the shortcomings of a traditional labor inspection strategy were acknowledged (Gustavsen, 1980). In 1989, with the adoption of the EU OHS Framework directive (89/391/EEC), psychosocial risks became encompassed by the OHS regulation due to the general provision that 'The employer shall have a duty to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to the work' [Article 5(1)]. However, general provisions do not ensure enforcement. Denmark provides an example. Denmark has had a general provision since 1977, and the Labor Inspectorate began enforcement in the 1980s. However, political agreements have restricted the scope of the enforcement. In reality, genuine enforcement began only in the late 1990s (Rasmussen et al., 2011).

In several countries, OHS authorities are now taking more regulatory actions to deal with psychosocial risk factors, most often those related to bullying, harassment, and risks of violence (for an overview see Lippel & Quinlan, 2011). Outside the narrow confines of state regulation, many aspects of psychosocial risks have attracted attention. Hence, attempts are being made to revise management standards for OHS (such as OHSAS 18001) so that they encompass psychosocial risks (Hohnen & Hasle, 2011; Hohnen et al., 2014; Leka et al., 2011).

Research into the regulatory aspects of psychosocial risk is a relatively new field, with only few published studies (though see Kompier et al., 1994 for an earlier study). However, the researchers all point out the difficulties in regulating psychosocial risks compared with physical and safety risks (Hohnen & Hasle, 2011; Lippel & Quinlan, 2011; Starheim & Rasmussen, 2014). The regulatory difficulties appear in both the labor/factory inspection process (Lippel & Quinlan, 2011) and in the OHSM systems auditing process (Hohnen & Hasle, 2011; Jespersen et al., 2016). In this article, we use a broad concept of regulation (inspired by Jordana & Levi-Faur, 2004) by which regulation denotes all societal actions intended to change behavior for the greater good, and we therefore include both labor inspection and OHS management (OHSM) systems audits.

Regulation of psychosocial risks using the traditional instruments has been difficult because of difficulties in specifying standards and in enforcing these via inspection (Johnstone et al., 2011; Rasmussen et al., 2011). The same kinds of difficulties occur with the setting of management standards and subsequent related audits of OHSM systems (Hohnen et al., 2014). The few studies available have not focused on the underlying causes of these difficulties, much less the consequences for regulation strategies. It is the aim of this article to help fill this research gap. We do this by presenting a theoretical analysis of the nature of psychosocial risk and comparing that to some of the prevailing strategies for regulation of psychosocial risks. In our analysis, we focus especially on the workplace activities in terms of inspection and third-party audits. Our analysis builds on the existing studies of regulation as implemented in practice. The descriptions of regulatory practices are based on the special issue of Safety Science on regulation and inspection of psychosocial risks (Lippel & Quinlan, 2011) and traces older and recent literature from that reference. …

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