Opinion

ISO mental health standard needs a multi-disciplinary approach

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Ensuring the psychological safety of the workforce is an increasingly important area of practice for occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals.


ISO 45003 was published in June 2021 and was marketed as the first global standard giving practical guidance on managing psychological safety at work. In the UK, this adds to pre-existing actions recommended by government in their 2017 Thriving at Work report and the Management Standards for tackling work-related stress developed by HSE back in 2004. This raises questions of what the real value of ISO 45003 is in tackling poor employee mental health in the UK and how we should assess its impact beyond the simple metric of accreditation take-up.

Phil Newton, Associate in the UK Health & Safety and Regulatory Risk Advisory Team at Pinsent Masons LLP.

The statistics don’t lie
It is undeniable that the pandemic has had a negative impact on employee mental health. Statistics published by HSE in December 2021 are the first to really measure the effect of the pandemic in terms of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The two key statistics are:

  • The number of workers suffering a new case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety rose from 347,000 to 451,000 in 2020/21 compared with 2019/20. That is a 30 per cent increase in new cases in one year.
  • Of the 822,000 workers suffering from a new or long-standing case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020/21, an estimated 449,000 (i.e. 55 per cent) reported that this was caused or made worse by the effects of the Covid pandemic.

Beyond the pandemic, the cost to business from poor mental health is equally staggering. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety is responsible for nearly half of all working days lost in the UK due to ill health. Recent research by Deloitte concluded that the cost of poor mental health was £1,700 per employee per year when looking at absenteeism, staff turnover and lack of productivity.

Hazard identification
Publication of ISO 45003 was timely therefore in providing an opportunity to reconsider what effective risk management in this area looks like. It has introduced the term ‘psychosocial risk’ into the OSH professionals’ lexicon and challenged them to better understand the range of psychosocial hazards in their workplace as the basis for effective risk assessment and control.

ISO 45003 provides a comprehensive list of psychosocial hazards which is not exhaustive, but is a good starting point for organisations looking to understand the typical hazards within three broad categories:

  • Aspects of how work is organised – examples relate to roles and expectations, control and autonomy, demands, workload and job security
  • Social factors at work – interpersonal relationships, leadership, support and supervision and recognition and reward
  • Work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks – examples include provision of inadequate equipment and poor working conditions.

What employers really need to know though is how to identify the psychosocial hazards present in their workplace. This requires a detailed understanding of the workforce by developing sophisticated and mature processes for the collection of relevant data and then undertaking detailed analysis.

Again, ISO 45003 is helpful in that it gives examples of typical data-gathering processes that organisations can put in place, such as reviewing job descriptions, consultation with workers, undertaking surveys, conducting inspections and reviewing internal and sector-specific safety statistics.

Broader remit than HR
For those organisations looking to adopt the ISO 45003 standard, it is clear from the subject matter that a multi-disciplinary approach will be required. Employee wellbeing has traditionally been viewed as an ‘HR issue’ but a proactive organisational response to managing psychosocial risk is a significantly broader remit. This will require professionals in OSH, HR, Risk and Compliance and Legal to work together to manage, for example, the data protection and GDPR issues that will inevitably arise.

This is not historically an area either where HSE has been proactive in terms of enforcement. The barriers to enforcement action (for example, narrow incident reporting requirements and difficulties in establishing a causal link between mental health issues and workplace incidents), are well known. Although this is a ‘hot topic’ in terms of occupational health at the moment, there is no indication this enforcement trend is about to change.

To that extent, while mitigation of existing or future legal risk is a valid reason for adopting the ISO 45003 standard, the decision-makers in an organisation might be more receptive to arguments based on achieving more aspirational business objectives. These could include demonstrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) corporate governance reporting criteria or supporting a successful diversity and inclusion strategy to attract and retain the best talent.

It is still too early to assess what the lasting impact of ISO 45003 in the UK will be. However, at this early stage, we can say that it has at least made a positive contribution to the body of existing guidance and challenged organisations on how they are going to respond to this high-profile issue as we emerge from the pandemic.

ISO 45003 Standard
HSE’s Stress Management Standards
Phil Newton is an Associate in the UK Health & Safety and Regulatory Risk Advisory Team at Pinsent Masons LLP. Contact him here.

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