The forthcoming ISO 45003 standard focuses on the mental health in ‘health and safety’ and offers timely guidance on how to protect the psychosocial wellbeing of staff.
Less than a year of many people working from home – the perk consistently found to be what employees crave most – staff are now clamouring to return to the office. Places once pilloried for contributing to poor mental health are now seen as havens for human interaction.
Still, it’s simplistic suddenly to label offices as good, and home environments as bad. After all, the latest UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics record that half of all work-related ill health cases during 2019-20 were caused by stress, depression and anxiety. But what is being exposed is just how the function of work, regardless of where it’s being done, is increasingly being viewed through a mental health lens, with a recognition that the way it is organised needs looking at again.
Cue the summer 2021 arrival of ISO 45003 – the first global standard that will give employers practical guidance on how to manage psychosocial risks to staff in the workplace.
Stavroula Leka is professor of work organisation and wellbeing at the Business School of University College Cork and co-convener of the working group developing ISO 45003. She says: ‘With mounting data that poor work organisation, design and management is associated with poor mental health, absenteeism, presenteeism and human error, it was felt that a specific guidance standard on psychosocial risks was needed.’
Drafting the guidance
Stavroula defines psychosocial risk as any risk related to how work is organised – from social factors to aspects of the work environment and hazardous tasks. The assumption is that psychosocial hazards are present in all organisations and sectors, and from all kinds of employment arrangements.
ISO 45003 is a proactive attempt to make good mental wellbeing part and parcel of a company’s culture
Some people have suggested that the term ‘psychosocial’ is too medicalised, but its use has broad support. Organisations were invited to submit their comments to the draft document by October 2020. Ivan Williams Jimenez, policy development manager at IOSH, says: ‘What we’re trying to make clear is that work organisation and work design can contribute to good or poor psychological health and safety – which requires very specific interventions and an integrated approach.’
Because ISO 45003 will provide ‘guidance’ rather than comprise formal accreditation, the revised draft will include details about what constitutes psychosocial risks, their impact on the individual and the organisation, and how they can be assessed and managed. Stavroula says that all comments were to be looked at in December, with a final draft international standard ballot planned in February or March.
Sally Swingewood, lead standards development manager at BSI, is also involved in drafting the standard. She says that while ISO 45003 is stand-alone, it will feed into those organisations undergoing ISO 45001. ‘If you’re a company doing 45001, applying elements of 45003 will help you to achieve it,’ she says. ‘The aim is for 45003 to be incredibly practical to those who haven’t had much expertise in this area.’
Ivan adds: ‘Firms designing management systems for ISO 45001 will not have to design a new one for ISO 45003 as these are guidelines specifically for managing psychosocial risks.’
ISO 45003 timeline to publication
2018: ISO 45001 is published – the first ISO standard on occupational health and safety management
2019: Guidance begins to be drawn up for the new ISO 45003 on psychological health and safety, including how to prevent or manage workload issues such as stress or burnout
26 June – 4 October 2020: Consultation period for the draft guidelines, with invitations for interested parties to write and submit their comments
December 2020: More than 500 responses read and digested
February/March 2021: Revised draft published for final approval
June/July 2021: Anticipated date the guidelines will be ready.
Breadth of scope
Comments on the draft have been broadly supportive to have 45003 slot below 45001, but it hasn’t all been unquestioning. The British Psychological Society is concerned that the guidance is too simplistic. More stridently, it suggests: ‘Non-psychological professionals [line managers] might be used for understanding psychological issues within the workplace, [yet] psychological assessment must always be done by trained and registered psychologists.’
Stavroula counters this: ‘The guidance is not trying to turn line managers into psychologists. ISO 45003 is not about managing clinical psychological problems. It’s more about how organisations [can] create a positive psychosocial environment. It’s guidance for designing work in a more preventative way so that psychological issues don’t arise.’
Stavroula, Sally and Ivan admit that there will always be criticisms that ‘guidance’ rather than accreditation could make others see ISO 45003 as too broad. But they also recognise that psychological health is affected by a wide variety of factors, many of which will have nothing to do with employees’ working arrangements.
Rhian Greaves, a regulatory lawyer with a specialism in health and safety at Pannone Corporate, says: ‘Mental health is affected by personal, cultural, racial, religious, gender and other issues. I think what ISO 45003 is at least trying to do is highlight the part that the at-work elements contribute to it.’
Antony Eckersley CMIOSH, managing director at TSE Solutions, which advises on health and safety law, adds: ‘Many companies still brush psychological health under the carpet. ISO 45003 is a proactive attempt to make good mental wellbeing part and parcel of a company’s culture.’
Putting it into practice
The British Psychological Society and others argue that SMEs – which comprise 99% of all UK businesses and account for three-fifths of all private-sector employment – may not engage with the new guidance. Still, Antony points out: ‘The HSE has found that the two largest rises in mental health absenteeism have come from increased workload and lack of managerial support – two things that apply to firms of all sizes.’
So what do employers think of it? Ian Maxwell, group health and safety manager of luxury retirement village provider Audley Group, has implemented ISO 45001 and is watching the ISO 45003 developments with interest. ‘ISO 45003 forces companies to take a new stance on wellbeing and use an integrated approach,’ he says. ‘Risk profiling will help organisations assess where the impacts of psychosocial risks may occur.’
He argues, however, that psychosocial health and wellbeing is new territory for many health and safety professionals, who ‘will require specialist or additional professional help’, on how to pick up on mental health indicators.
Happily, Stavroula suggests that at least the increase in working from home needn’t cause any wholesale rewriting of the draft. ‘We believe that the finished text will apply across the board, regardless of where people actually work. The working group will look at the text, and reference working at home issues more, but this development will not alter the content significantly.’
Ivan adds: ‘Psychosocial hazards were already recognised as major challenges to health, safety and wellbeing at work. Now the business case is clearer than ever as many of these hazards have increased as a result of the pandemic.’
All being well, ISO 45003 will be with us by summer 2021. Sally says: ‘By setting out advice, in layman’s terms, companies have the opportunity to change the conversation about psychosocial risks and be all the safer for it.’
ISO 45003 at a glance
- It is the first global standard giving practical guidance on managing psychological health
- in the workplace.
- It will provide help in identifying the conditions, circumstances and workplace demands that could potentially impair psychological health and wellbeing, and how to improve the working environment.
- It builds on what is covered by ISO 45001, which is designed to prevent work-related injury and ill health and to provide safe and healthy workplaces.
- It defines a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as one that ‘promotes workers’ psychological wellbeing and actively works to prevent harm to psychological health, including in negligent, reckless or intentional ways’.
- It is now at ‘draft’ stage, meaning it is 95% technically accurate.