A new standard for managing psychosocial risk

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Managing mental health risks has never been so high on the business agenda, but by being aware of, and meeting, the new ISO standard for managing psychosocial risk, organisations can demonstrate their commitment to supporting mentally healthy workplaces, writes Suzanne Hurndall.

The stress of adhering to pandemic restrictions and requirements, and the effect of personal changes such as home schooling and bereavement, has been immense. This impact of the pandemic has left many organisations feeling confused or under-supported on how best to manage employee wellbeing, both now and in the future.

Additional guidance from a new global standard looks set to be introduced this June. Quality standard ISO 45003 incorporates managing psychosocial risk; the factors that impact employees ‘psychological response’ to their work and workplace conditions, as well as relationships with co-workers and colleagues.

The voluntary standard sets out what an organisation should have in place to improve employees’ psychological health, safety and wellbeing. This will involve taking a more cohesive approach to occupational health and wellbeing and taking account of psychological and mental health. This will include the impact of stressful issues for employees such as heavy workloads, lack of control over work and working methods, and short deadlines.

Put simply, ISO 45003 is set to be a new global standard designed to provide best practice and offer practical advice on managing employees’ psychological health at work.

It will include guidance on how to spot psychosocial dangers that can affect workers, which will help both now with homeworking and when employees return to the office. It will also provide simple steps organisations can take to manage psychosocial issues, recognising that most organisations do not employ psychologists as a norm.

Looking ahead, some employees will be excited about returning to the office, but for others this transition will make them feel anxious. ISO 45003 is expected to acknowledge how restructures or business transformations can have an impact on employees’ mental health and how organisations can approach such reforms. For example, organisations will need to show what systems are in place to ease potential psychosocial health as a result of the way work is organised and structured.

Managing risk factors

The pandemic has really opened our eyes to employees’ lives outside the office after seeing colleagues’ homes, children and pets on Zoom. Incorporating a more human approach into risk management is now key.

As such, it’s important to review all the risk factors as people plan to return to the office in the summer. This includes consideration of how employees might react to this shift and any other organisational changes that may occur over the coming months.

Increasingly, HR responsibilities are not just about preventing discrimination, harassment or bullying or other well-established HR tasks, but also recognising the aspects of our lives that impact performance. Bereavement, illness and caring responsibilities can also affect our wellbeing and ability to perform at our best.

Once these personal risk factors are considered, organisations should look at how they can show individuals they care about them – what wellbeing checks can be made, and how often? How can they improve their ability to listen? What steps can they take to manage issues that need greater understanding, and for which employees may need further support?

It is important that psychosocial risks are managed in a manner consistent with other occupational health and safety (OHS) risks. An OHS management system integrated into the organisation’s broader business processes, can help. This should cover the following:

  • Stress risk assessment. This should identify potential issues by understanding the difference between a ‘hazard’ and ‘risk.’ Decide who might be harmed and how. Evaluate and record the risks regularly, and decide on control measures.
  • A mental health plan. This must promote the wellbeing of employees and cover how work-related factors that could impact mental health can be addresses, including checking in with staff.
  • Support. Establish which support services, such as an employee assistance programme, are on offer to an employee experiencing a mental health concern.
  • Develop awareness. This involves ensuring that mental health and wellbeing awareness is part of the induction process and further/annual training is provided. Champion mental health and conversations around it, via awareness days and internal events, for example.

The benefits of introducing a quality standard

The difficulties presented by the pandemic have highlighted the importance of putting people’s wellbeing first. Supporting mental health in the workplace has never been so critical.

Organisations that achieve the new ISO 45003 standard following its introduction will be able to provide real, standardised, demonstrable and public proof that mental health and wellbeing are high on their agenda. It will not only help to create a good working environment but also a strong structure for managing workplace mental health and safety.

We already know that happy and supported employees perform better, are more engaged, have fewer sick days, are less likely to leave, and are more creative. In this new era of living with the virus, I’m convinced that organisations that achieve this new standard will become some of the strongest and most resilient businesses going forward.

Suzanne Hurndall

About Suzanne Hurndall

Suzanne Hurndall is relationship director at outsourced HR consultancy and support business hr inspire.
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