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Understanding risks, hazards and protective factors in workplace mental health

March 11, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Facilitating programs and policies to reduce mental harm and promote mental health in the workplace requires understanding the interaction between psychosocial risks, hazards, and protective factors.

When designing a workplace mental health strategy, workplace mental health facilitators should leverage a Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) approach. Determine the kind of data to be collected and why and what resources and supports are in place or could be used to close a mental health gap.

Data collection is of little use unless there are resources and conviction to address gaps. Workers will expect their employer to act if asked their opinion on a concern. They can become frustrated by a lack of action and follow-through, something I refer to as survey regret.

Be clear on the following terms and how they interconnect:

  • Psychosocial factors: Environmental workplace factors that can be positive or negative. A factor such as job demand that can increase the hazard of mental harm is a risk when perceived negatively by employees. Frequency, duration, and intensity can affect the risk — the greater the exposure, the more risk to workers. ISO 45003 is a user-friendly framework for categorizing risk factors such as how work is organized, social factors, and physical factors of work environment, equipment, and hazardous tasks.
  • Psychosocial hazards: The consequences of being exposed to risk factors. A remote worker feeling isolated from other workers may experience loneliness, leading to depression or other mental illnesses.
  • Protective factors: Actions employers and workers can take to mitigate risk factors. These actions can include implementing policies, programs, or behavioural initiatives to support and protect workers’ experience.

Measure twice, cut once

Workplace mental health facilitators will benefit from the sage saying, “Measure twice and cut once.” Before collecting or auditing psychosocial risk factors and hazards, inventory current resources and their purpose.

If many workers are concerned about work demand, determine what supports and prevention programs like leadership training and resiliency are in place to assist them, and ensure they are aware of those resources.

Collecting data without insight into what could be done may cause more harm than benefit

Before collecting data, validate employees’ perception of risk factors such as work demand to be clear on the tools you can use to collect the data. The Mental Health Commission of Canada offers Workload Management and other tools to help employers recognize and understand the 13 factors of psychological health and safety in the workplace. The Mental Fitness Index, used to facilitate the Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards, provides insights into factors, hazards, and current programs.

Leveraging a validated psychosocial risk assessment is a prudent step for obtaining a quantitative baseline to indicate the risk if nothing is done to enhance employees’ experience with each risk factor measured.

The following table can be framed before and finalized after data is collected. This can help ensure alignment of risks, hazards, protective factors, and options.

Potential risk factor Protective factors Hazards
Work demand (e.g., due to vacancy levels and operational needs this concern is being reported more to leaders).


Work demand and concerns appear to be a common concern expressed in culture. To better understand the impact this factor will be selected to measured.


· Leadership training on how to mitigate work demand stress (e.g., focus is not on what has to be done but how).


Options for consideration:

· Resiliency training for employees to improve self-advocacy to speak up.

· Train leader in how to be psychological safe leaders (e.g., how to help remove silence and fear)

Workers reporting chonic and acute levels of stress. This is contributing to an increase in sick time days as well an increase number of short-term disability claims due to mental health.


Additional considerations for supporting workplace mental health

  • No two organizations have the same risk factors, consider the kinds to measure based on the organization. Employees working remotely may be more at risk of isolation than those working onsite. One way employers can mitigate this risk is to not assume workers OK but to measure and evaluate the degree of risk isolation workers may be experiencing as well the hazard of loneliness.
  • It is impossible to deal effectively with 13 or more risk factors at one time, determine the most critical and associated hazards and consequences to the organization. Then decide what protective factors can be implemented using a PDCA approach. It is also beneficial to be clear on what kind of protective factors the employer can put in place to mitigate risk as well to support worker who are being negatively impacted by a risk factor.
  • A focused approach that engages workers and collects their feedback on how well an initiative is working increases the likelihood of creating behaviour changes to protect their mental health. One lead practice for work place facilitators to keep top of mind is the value of constantly engaging workers with respect to their needs and concerns, as well following up and checking to determine how effective programs and policies are working.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

The Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards (PSWAs) are a national, evidence-based annual competition that measures the employee experience with respect to workplace mental health.

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