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ISO 45003: managing mental health in the work place

It is an unfortunate truth that within our working life, we are highly likely to experience stress at work. The pandemic brought stress to the workplace on a global scale and recent research by Deloitte concluded that mental health problems are the leading cause of sickness absence, costing UK employers up to £1,700 per employee per year.

In 2020 / 2021 the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) estimated that 822,000 workers in the UK had suffered from work-related stress, or anxiety, accounting for 50% of all work-related ill health. An estimated 449,000 reported that this was caused or made worse by the effects of the pandemic.

The publication of ISO 45003 in June 2021 was both timely and welcomed as while there were plenty of guidelines that looked at the physical aspects of health and safety, there was limited guidance for organisations to assist them in supporting their employees’ mental wellbeing.

What is ISO 45003?

ISO 45003 became the first global standard to provide practical guidance for managing psychosocial risks in the workplace, providing a structured framework on how to identify and manage these risks, looking at:

  1. How work is organised
  2. Social factors at work
  3. The work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks

It then offers examples of the negative symptoms that can arise from such hazards and gives practical examples on how to manage and eliminate these risks. ISO 45003 is guidance only, making compliance voluntary. However, it is a good starting point for employers looking to incorporate systems for managing psychological health and safety at work within their occupational health and safety management processes.

What does it mean to be psychologically safe?

Poor mental wellbeing is a health and safety hazard and one which the pandemic has only exacerbated.

To create a psychologically safe workplace is to identify and control any hazards which may be harmful to workers mental wellbeing and take reasonable and proportionate steps to eliminate or mitigate such risks. Hazards are the circumstances and workplace demands that can impact the psychological health and wellbeing of workers, such as workload, relationship conflicts and lack of support.

Organisations should complete psychological risk assessments to identify these hazards and assess what changes are required to prevent work-place injury. Working from home can make it more difficult to identify poor mental health, meaning organisations should consider whether training is necessary to help workers identify signs of exposure to psychological risks.

Assessing and managing psychological risks will require an ongoing and multi-disciplinary approach which is likely to throw up GDPR and data protection issues and organisations should ensure that they are proactive in complying with the relevant laws.

Why do you need a psychologically safe workplace?

Under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974, employers have a legal duty to do all that is reasonably practicable to look after their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. This covers all aspects of an individual’s health, both physical and psychological. To focus on just the physical is to overlook a fundamental pillar of health and safety which will put organisations at risk of breaching health and safety law.

Mental health has been historically neglected by regulators and questions are still raised about enforcement issues, such as the evidence required to establish that mental health risks are down to workplace conditions. However, there is no doubt that that the HSE are alive to the issue and it is an area which is likely to become increasingly scrutinised and regulated.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace also has real economic benefits as creating good foundations for a mentally well workforce increases recruitment, retention and a more sustainable organisation which is diverse and engaged. Recent research carried out by Deloitte concluded that the average return on well-being was £5 for every £1 spent.

Legal, economic and moral reasons make prioritising mental health a necessity and ISO 45003 can be a valuable tool for organisations wishing to become confident in understanding and managing the mental health of their workplace. Organisations are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the guidance and, where necessary, seek legal advice to ensure that they have a psychologically safe workplace and are compliant with the relevant data protection laws.

If you would like more information in relation to this or any regulatory risk topic, please contact our Business Risk and Regulation team for specialist legal advice.

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