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Avoiding the pitfalls of ISO 45003 for psychological health, safety and wellbeing at work

We have to applaud the release of ISO 45003, the first global standard on psychological health, safety and wellbeing at work.

The standard will guide employers who are looking to prioritise the mental health of their staff and provides a framework for identifying psychosocial risks that can impact the workforce.

And we all know that when organisations foster a culture of care, and invest in their employees’ wellbeing, performance significantly improves, as does the organisation’s staff retention rate.

But how can businesses ensure they successfully implement best practice as outlined in ISO 45003 and, crucially, avoid the many potential pitfalls?

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If your business is looking to implement ISO 45003 then chances are that the responsibility for this will have fallen to, at least in part, your HR team.

It is important, of course, that there is buy-in from all areas of the business – psychological health and wellbeing at work is everybody’s responsibility.

The guidance supplements the current standard for broader occupational health and safety management, the ISO 45001, released in 2018. Some elements of workforce wellbeing are covered in this earlier standard, such as workplace bullying and harassment.

The ISO 45003, however, focuses specifically on providing a framework for identifying psychosocial risks than can negatively impact the psychological health and wellbeing of employees. It follows the same High Level Structure (HLS) of the ISO 45001 and is intended for businesses of all sizes across all sectors.

The standard defines psychosocial risk as relating to “how work is organised, social factors at work and aspects of the work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks".

The critical emphasis here is that the focus is about addressing how work is designed, to prevent harm and promote wellbeing, in the same way we focus on preventing physical harm.

To make the task of assessing risk less overwhelming, the standard outlines examples of potential harm, such as relationships, organisational culture, work/life balance and so on.

Although these factors will apply to most businesses the list is not exhaustive and a clear understanding of external and internal
issues specific to a business is required prior to implementation.

It is certainly worth reviewing any current practices in relation to the management of psychosocial risks. This could include looking at the overlap with an existing mental health plan or wellbeing strategy.

Health and safety experts urge that the same approach as used with any other risk assessment be adopted, namely identify the hazards, assess who may be harmed and judge the likelihood and consequence of that harm. Where it gets a little more complicated, however, is that we have to consider that individuals respond differently to situations.

For instance, employees are currently facing uncertainty as many return to the office or shift to a pattern of hybrid working. As we know, ‘change’ creates uncertainty and therefore changes to working practices presents a psychosocial hazard to which psychological response will, of course, vary.

That said, the guidance is designed to be practical and the intention is to support organisations to design work in such a way that it can prevent psychological harm and mental ill-health.

For the ISO 45003 to help create a culture where individuals flourish and feel safe, commitment to the process from senior management is fundamental.

Staff participation and ongoing consultation will also be key. We need to ask our people what will make the difference and then make sure that the solutions are driven by our people too. We must then ensure we respond by testing these solutions out and have measurable goals to review effectiveness.

This is not something that we implement from the top down.

Though the standard may take some time and effort to fully understand and apply to individual businesses, its release couldn’t be timelier. Considering it as another box-ticking exercise would be short-sighted. It has the potential to help transform working practices and inform how organisations look after the psychological health and wellbeing of their workforce.


Rebecca Holt is a practicing clinical psychologist and founder of Working Mindset


This piece first appeared in the September/October 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.