Skip to main content

Worrying about risk: How perceptions of risk don’t always align to reality

This page is approximately a 4 minute read

This page was published on

This page was written by Johan Botes

A banner image of Johan Botes, the article's author.

Johan Botes, Partner at Baker McKenzie Johannesburg, discusses how people's perceptions of risk, fueled by fear or stress, often do not align with the actual reality of the risks they face.

24% 24%

The Poll revealed that 24% of people worldwide said they had experienced or knew someone who had experienced serious harm from their work in the past two years.

Worrying about risk: How perceptions of risk don’t always align to reality

If you observed consumers irrationally bulk buying toilet paper at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, then it will come as no surprise that psychologists recognise fear or stress as key drivers of human behaviour. Our behaviour is strongly influenced by our perceptions of the risks we face. A 2017 Stanford University study found that the rate of gun purchases increased after mass shootings, with purchasers experiencing heightened concerns over their own security and ability to protect themselves. Our perceptions of the risks we face influence not only our buying behaviours, but also our decisions on where we holiday, where we travel, and where we live and work.

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll is a world-first global study. It looks at the worries that arise around perceived risks to people’s safety. The second edition of the Poll has now been published, following the initial 2019 study. This report is the culmination of around 125,000 interviews, conducted by Gallup in 121 countries during 2021. It provides useful insights into what plagues our worried minds, and how trends have changed in this respect.

More than four out of ten people in these regions worry about becoming a victim of crime or violence. However, globally, the perception of the threat that violence poses to a person's security is not in line with the actual reality. In fact, the likelihood of harm befalling a person as a result of violence and crime is often low when compared with the level of worry.

Johan Botes, Partner and Head of the Employment and Compensation Practice, Baker McKenzie Johannesburg

Worry vs experience of risk

Whilst there was a notable increase in the number of people stating that they feel less safe than five years previously (from 30% to 34%), Covid-19 surprisingly did not feature that highly on the list of people's safety concerns. Central and Western Africa saw a significant increase in worry, from 38% to 51%, with road accidents, crime and violence the biggest risks on people's list of perceived threats. Latin America (43%) and Southern Africa (42%) saw the highest recorded rate in respect of fears about personal safety due to crime and violence.

Understanding worry and experiences of harm at work

Meanwhile, the Poll shows that people globally are more likely to have experienced harm through their work than from crime, and yet worry about this less – less than they have experienced it, and less than they worry about crime.

The Poll revealed that 24% of people worldwide said they had experienced or knew someone who had experienced serious harm from their work in the past two years. However, 19% said they were very worried about such harm.

This insight is helpful when designing employee wellbeing or wellness programmes and demonstrates that employers should take note of staff perceptions or worries. The report cautions that the disjoint between perception versus reality could hamper efforts to address work-related harm. With employers grappling to implement policies to give effect to legal obligations or to differentiate themselves in a competitive market, understanding employee fears and worries is useful in creating effective programmes. It will also allow employers to manage staff needs based on regional realities: workers in Southern Africa are much more likely to respond positively to an initiative aimed at empowering them to deal with concerns about workplace safety than their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand, for example, where only 5% expressed concern about this issue.

In many jurisdictions, employers attract some level of liability for creating and maintaining a safe working environment. Understanding that staff have differing views about the true nature of this risk is a good start in successfully managing it. Being able to tap into what causes worry, stress or anxiety to employees is critical in creating a culture where staff can come to work and perform at their optimal levels. Being able to show the reasonable steps taken to create a safe workplace could also assist employers to manage the legal risk inherent in claims relating to workplace safety.