What is ISO 45003? – Management of Psychological Risks

Audit By Matthew Coombes

Published 06.04.2021
Updated 25.08.2021
Reviewed 16.11.2021

ISO 45003 – Occupational health and safety management

ISO 45003 is a guidance document for organisations that are looking to improve work related mental health and implement wellbeing as part of their management of occupational health and safety.

As a whole the standards and guidance documents created by the ISO provide a systematic risk management approach to multiple topics including health and safety, quality, environment and more.

They are created via a lengthy development process that includes input from relevant professionals across the world and standards such as ISO 45001 and 9001 have been adopted by organisations of all shapes, sizes and operational locations.

The 45003 guidance is not a certified standard in its own right and it may be best implemented alongside a 45001 occupational health and safety management system, as it follows the same structure and will be easier to implement with an understanding of these systems.

However, certification to 45001 is not a necessity, and you can use the guidance to develop a management system that considers psychosocial risks by following what the ISO have set out in the 45003 document.

If your organisation has already begun to actively manage mental health and wellbeing, the guidance can be used to make sure that what your organisation has in place is relevant to the ISO guidance, which has a strong emphasis on leadership roles and reacting to change.

Psychosocial Risks

Speaking generally, the idea of psychosocial risks, mental health and mental wellbeing is a ‘new territory’ for many health and safety professionals. This guidance provides a useful tool for health and safety professionals to employ in order to further develop their understanding of how to manage psychosocial risks, including establishing relevant risk profiling.

The way in which psychosocial risks manifest and affect individuals within the workplace may seem difficult to contextualise for those unfamiliar with psychological health. However, the approach to addressing psychosocial risks is very similar to that used to manage physical health risks.

When managing physical health risks, individual differences and human factors must be taken into account and this is no different for mental health. You must identify ‘at risk workers’ and tailor the support that you will be offering to manage psychological risks through direct consultation with workers. To a certain extent, this need for consultation and tailored support is accentuated when it comes to mental health and psychosocial risk management, as circumstances can affect individuals differently and their needs can vary greatly. This is especially the case for psychosocial risks because individuals can interpret the same situation differently.

A simple example of this would be if somebody works in a job role where they take phone calls from the public and from customers. If during a phone call someone was being irate, disrespectful or threatening to the employee who was taking their call, the employee might get upset. Some employees may simply shrug it off as ‘part of the job’ and be able to disassociate the negative comments from their mental wellbeing or self-esteem, but others may not. This is an individual difference that must be treated seriously, and not just considered as a matter of ‘developing thick skin’. The situation has been created by work and therefore its effect on the individual is as a direct result of their work and must be managed to ensure that it does not have a negative or long-lasting effect on the individual.

This may seem like a trivial example to some people, but if hearing abuse over the phone is experienced on a regular basis as part of work, it is likely to eventually affect anyone negatively.

Accepting that there is a responsibility to manage issues such as the above example, and other psychosocial risks is much like accepting that it is your responsibility to ensure that you are managing physical health risks.

When can it be implemented?

Organisations can start to implement the ISO 45003 guidance now, to help support and better protect workers from psychosocial risks and mental health issues arising within the workplace. The guidance was published in June 2021, and can currently be read online for free. Although you will not be able to gain certification of your conformity to the ISO 45003 guidance, following it can be an important endorsement of what you are doing to manage these risks.

Highlights of the guidance document

Positive – It exists

The mere existence of a guidance document that sets out to build upon the success of managing occupational health and safety and begins to systematically evaluate and address psychological risks that arise from work is a MASSIVE step in the right direction to addressing the prevalent problems that we have with how work and mental health/wellbeing interact within society.

Negative – No mention of bereavement directly

The standard is aimed at an international audience and different cultures process bereavement in a different regard. With that being said, in the UK bereavement can be hugely impactful to an individual and it is my concern that organisations may not enact appropriate policies and actions on the subject of bereavement in the UK if they simply follow the guidance, and that such an important subject may be overlooked.

Furthermore, some sectors such as healthcare and care professionals will be likely to experience bereavement at work on a much more regular basis from their interactions with patients/clients, and this bereavement is as a direct result of working in that sector.

Positive – Consideration for ageing workforce, if the guidance is adopted widely, it could influence future decisions on the way that we work

The guidance has a consideration for the psychological impacts that work will have on an ageing workforce. The increase in retirement age and requirements to work to an older age is not only unsustainable for the individual, it may lead to further social problems in society. Those unable to work at an older age may be perceived as ‘not of value’, which can already be the case in our economically centred society. Addressing the psychological impact of the aging workforce in this document may help to steer society as a whole towards a better path for how our life and work interact.

Negative – The document is very technical and can be hard to read

You will need familiarity with, or to develop an understanding of, standards in order to make the best use of the guidance, and you may also require outside consultation/support to translate the guidance into something that is useable by your organisation.

This is often the case with standards, as they have to be written in a way that means that they are able to be accurately translated into every conceivable language. You may require help from a health and safety consultancy organisation to properly implement the guidance. For example, ACT have successfully ran training courses and awareness seminars and published publications to explain what ISO 45001 is, and how it can be used effectively.

The business case for managing psychosocial risks

Psychosocial risks are already recognised by many as providing significant challenges to health and wellbeing at work, however the business case for doing more to manage these risks has been strengthened as a result of the pandemic.

It can be difficult to gauge wellbeing performance and know what impact poor or successful management of mental health and wellbeing can have on workers, but to put it simply:
“Happy workers are more productive” – University of Oxford – Source (opens in new tab) – https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2019-10-24-happy-workers-are-13-more-productive.

A focus on controlling psychosocial risks may result in a reduction of ill health, absenteeism, staff turnover, loss of production, mistakes being made and more.

Further examples of psychosocial risks in occupational settings

Out of hours working

Improvements in technology have meant that quite often for managers and senior members of organisations, the office will come with you when you leave for the day. This may be in the form of work-emails connected to devices, or from providing a mobile phone number to clients that they can use to reach you out of office hours.

Some individuals are fine with this, and see working out of hours as just an extension of the job that is covered by their salary, benefits or other.
Whereas other individuals may find that this extension is a breach of the line between work and home, and that working from home or being contactable while at home stresses them out, prevents them from switching off in their down time, or means that they are working too much.

Working remotely

In response to improving remote technologies and the COVID-19 pandemic remote working has become a more frequent go to solution for workers that are required to be out of office but still able to work. Remote working often means working on your own within your place of residence, and may involve not having direct or face-to-face contact with other members of your organisation (or even your household) for prolonged periods of time, while still maintaining your occupational duties.

For some individuals this may offer a level of flexibility that provides more benefits than it does drawbacks. For example, you may be able to get up later to be ‘on time to work’, there may be no commuting required, you may find it easier to balance work and home life chores, or it may become easier to get access to healthy food and drinks throughout the working day. For some individuals these benefits may outweigh the benefits of social interaction and working from a set location.

However, this is not the case for all individuals, there is often a difficulty creating an effective divide between work-space and home-space while you are working from home, as you may be using a room in your house to work that has a secondary purpose such as your bedroom. This can be particularly troubling to employees that have limited space to begin with, as they may find that they are living entirely in one room. While working from home you may not see any other person during the entirety of your working day, whereas in an office or similar setting it may be quite frequent that you stop working to have a chat, or have time available to socialise. Working from home can be isolating.

This means that it’s entirely subjective and dependant on the individual as to the effect that working remotely will have on their mental health.

As such you should consider the change in environment and that change in routine when you are asking workers to work from home and consult with them to create a plan that works for them, and that can help maintain a good level of mental health while they are under your employment.

This could be done with a flexible approach to working whereby workers will spend x amount of time working from home and x amount of time working from the organisation’s premises.

Article written by Matthew Coombes
Health, Safety & Wellbeing advisor for ACT Associates Ltd.

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