The arrival of a new ISO standard, ISO 45003, this summer will put the management of psychological health and safety and psychosocial risk firmly in the spotlight. Occupational health practitioners would do well therefore to be getting up to speed with it so they can provide effective leadership, argues Sheila Lord.
Wellbeing is often put under the remit of HR professionals but is this the right approach, especially with the arrival this summer of a new ISO standard for managing psychological health and safety at work?
How many organisations are knowingly or unknowingly breaking the law when it comes to workplace wellbeing, especially in these times of Covid when mental ill health and stress levels globally are at an all-time high as we continue to work our way through the pandemic?
I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess but, when I ask businesses about their psychosocial risk assessments, only around 5% are carrying out these assessments regularly.
Assessing psychosocial risk
Yet the UK Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 Section 2.2 is clear: “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety, and welfare at work of all his employees. The matters to which that duty extends include in particular – the provision and maintenance of a working environment for his employees that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work.”
This applies to all employers, regardless of size and this duty of care extends to psychiatric injury. To recap, too, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities, as you would a physical hazard.
There is plenty of case law that exists, and the Health and Safety at Work Act is not the only legislation. Mental health at work is also covered under the Equality Act 2010 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
Yet, wellbeing is often considered as being a ‘benefit’ or a perk; something that is optional on the part of the employer. The law says different.
Pressure of ‘three pandemics’
In the summer of this year, we have the new ISO 45003 standard for managing psychological health and safety at work coming out.
The timing could not be better. We have three pandemics affecting the world on a global basis at this moment in time. First, of course, we have the Covid pandemic. But, on top of this, there is the global recession and a mental health pandemic.
To put the mental health problem into context, there were over one million suicides globally in 2020 according to the WHO, and, according to the UK Labour Force Survey, the number of working days lost to mental ill health in the UK for the period of 2019/2020 (so, pre pandemic) increased from 12.8 to 17.9 million days.
Therefore, it is clear that the arrival of ISO 45003 standard is both timely and relevant. So, what is it and what is its scope? According to the ISO, the standard is: “To prevent work-related psychological injury and ill health and to actively promote wellbeing within an occupational health and safety management system.”
Person-centred framework for wellbeing
There has never been a more pivotal moment in time for employers to make the changes needed; to take the lessons learned from the experiences and challenges we have all experienced over the last 12 months both personally and professionally.
The ISO framework has the potential to be a major game-changer regarding how organisations approach workplace mental health. Why? Because it gives organisations a framework for managing psychosocial risk within and occupational health and safety management system. a wellbeing strategy An approach that focuses not solely on the person but also the design of the work and the work environment.
However, and this is important, for ISO 45003 to be effective what is also needed is leadership commitment. Without this, it goes nowhere. There also needs to be consultation and participation of workers when it comes to the risk management process. Occupational health can be a pivotal part of putting all these building blocks into place.
People-centred approaches that put the emphasis on the employee are not enough on their own. Yes, employee assistance programmes (EAP) and mental health first aid (MHFA) are part of any good, integrated workplace wellbeing model. But they are not, and should not be seen as, a standalone solution.
When managing psychosocial risks, a combination of the following levels of intervention can be used (and these are also shown in figure 1 below):
1) Primary. Wellbeing promotion to keep people well and assist them to flourish
2) Secondary. Increasing resources that assist workers to deal with psychosocial risks by raising awareness and using risk management approaches to identify and control the risk factors to avoid escalation.
3) Tertiary. Illness management to reduce the harmful effects of exposure to psychosocial hazards, for example MHFA and EAPs.
If we compare the approach taken when it comes to physical safety, we wouldn’t use PPE and first aiders only to ensure the physical safety of our employees. We would ensure safe systems of work are in place and focus on the way work is organised to reduce the potential for harm. So why do many employers commonly use mental health first aid and EAPs only when trying to address workplace mental health? A tertiary prevention focused on injury management.
A key requirement of the standard and of UK legislation is the need to carry out risk assessments for psychosocial hazards.
Once the risks are identified, employers, in consultation with their employees, need to look at ways to mitigate them before they become a hazard.
With the right framework, guidance and tools organisations of all sizes and across all industries can implement systemic and data-driven approaches with relative ease.
Understanding psychosocial risk and injury
Given that a key focus of the new ISO is to “prevent work-related psychological injury” and encourage organisations to recognise psychosocial hazards, it may also be valuable to consider what even is ‘psychosocial risk’ in this context?
Psychosocial risk factors are things that may affect a workers’ psychological response to their work and workplace conditions. These can include things such as working relationships with supervisors and colleagues. Some examples of this are:
Demands. For example, workload, work patterns, and the work environment.
Autonomy. In other words, how much say do the people have over the way they work.
Support. Or, the support (or lack of) provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
Relationships. This includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviours such as bullying and harassment.
Role clarity. This relates to, do people understand their role and are there any conflicts with others?
Change management. How is organisational change managed and communicated?
Organisational justice. This is all about how an employee judges the behaviour of the organisation.
Reward and recognition. Are employees being recognised and rewarded for their contribution to the organisation?
Conclusion – an opportunity for OH to lead
Wellbeing is good for business. Businesses can quantify wellbeing from both a financial perspective and a cultural perspective. Absence rates, stigma, burnout, attrition rates, and recruitment costs are all measurable and, if you track them like any other business process, you can measure your return on investment.
As the ISO makes clear on its website, ISO 45003 is the first global standard designed to give practical guidance to employers on managing psychological health in the workplace. It provides guidance on the management of psychosocial risk, as part of an occupational health and safety management system.
It has been written to help organisations that are using an occupational health and safety management system based on ISO 45001 Occupational Health and Safety. However, it will also be useful for organisations that have not yet implemented an OH and safety management system.
It includes information on how to recognise the psychosocial hazards that can affect workers, such as those that arise from home working. It also offers examples of effective, and often simple, actions that can be taken to manage these and improve employee wellbeing.
Given that it is expected to be published as a full international standard in the summer, the message, then, for occupational health practitioners is spend the next few weeks and months familiarising yourself with it and what it means for your organisation or clients. You will then be in a position to influence, guide and lead the employers you work with through this important transition and change.