ISO 45003: Understanding Psychosocial Risks within the Workplace

ISO 45003: Understanding Psychosocial Risks within the Workplace

The International Organization for Standardization, also known as ISO, came out with a new standard in June of 2021. The standard is titled ISO 45003:2021 Occupational health and safety management — Psychological health and safety at work — Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. This standard exists to provide guidance on the employer’s duties when it comes to maintaining a healthy workforce not only physically, but also psychologically.

This article will be touching on the core ideas that ISO 45003:2021 presents, as well as the reasoning why taking this standard into consideration is the best option for any business. Those looking to improve company morale and retain skilled employees will get the most out of ISO 45003.

The Purpose of ISO 45003:2021

Overall, ISO 45003:2021 exists to tackle the problem of declining mental health in the workplace. According to the standard, “[p]sychosocial hazards are increasingly recognized as major challenges to health, safety and wellbeing at work.” With that being said, the standard also notes that employers have a duty to not only protect their employee’s physical health, but also their psychological wellbeing.

This new standard guides leaders through:

  • Recognizing negative environments
  • Encouraging participation
  • Planning in terms of addressing psychosocial risks
  • Supporting their employees
  • Evaluating the performance of the plan
  • Always looking for areas of improvement

ISO 45003 is not a standard enforced by other government regulatory bodies, yet. This could come to pass one day, but all it does right now is serve as a best practice method for companies to better handle mental health in the workplace. Not only will it benefit employees, but following this standard will also benefit employers in the long-term.

The Relationship Between ISO 45003 and ISO 45001

In short, the ISO 45003 standard is supposed to work in conjunction with ISO 45001.

ISO 45001:2018 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems – Requirements with Guidance for Use is meant to be for companies looking to implement exactly what it says, an OH&S management system. What’s unique about this standard is that it invites the use of 45003 by prioritizing the integration of other aspects of health and safety into the workplace. Naturally, it includes wellness and wellbeing, exactly what ISO 45003 is all about.

When implementing ISO 45001, the user should be looking for positive changes such as

  • Improvement of OH&S performance over time and into the future
  • Ease in fulfilling legal requirements
  • Achieving OH&S objectives

ISO 45001 targets any and every organization looking to improve safety management within the workplace. Therefore, this makes ISO 45003 applicable to all organizations as well.

What Does Worker Wellbeing Mean?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are about 51.5 million people, 20.6%, living in the United States that suffer from a mental illness. That’s nearly 1 in 5 people who suffer from these types of ailments. The three most common mental illnesses include anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and lastly, depression or other mood-altering disorders.

Now that those facts are known, wellbeing is defined as the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy. However, when applying the word “wellbeing” to work, the definition changes slightly to how the employees’ job, consisting of duties, expectations, level of stress, and the environment they work in, directly impacts their happiness and health.

Putting in the effort to help your employees navigate through mental health issues is what will set your company apart from others. A further reason why following ISO 45003 is in the employer’s best interest.

Effectively Managing Psychosocial Risks within the Workplace

Managing psychosocial risks within the workplace is much like managing normal physical hazards. According to ISO 45003, the six general rules for managing psychosocial risk include the following:

  1. How both internal and external issues impact the Occupational Health and Safety management system.
    1. Internal risk is anything associated with working within a facility such as how a facility is run, the availability of resources, and even the company’s level of commitment in terms of psychological health.
    2. External risk relates to examples such as the supply chain, customer relations, economic conditions, etc.
  2. Understand employee needs and expectations.
    1. This includes examples such as financial stability, career advancement, fair treatment, and equal opportunity, etc.
  3. Consider which employee needs or expectations may become, or are already, required by law.
  4. Adjust workplace activities to accommodate unique psychosocial risk.
    1. Learning to identify harmful environments will help with this step.
  5. Work to improve the efforts put towards managing psychosocial risk.
  6. How effective plans will be made after the assessment of those risks.

These are the bare bones of learning how to manage psychosocial risk within the workplace. Look at the free standard here to get a more in-depth explanation!

Performing Psychosocial Risk Assessments

Psychosocial risk assessments work on the same level as normal occupational risk assessments for physical hazards in the workplace. The following five steps are involved in performing a stress risk assessment:

  • Identify psychosocial hazards and employees that are at a higher risk of developing an illness
  • Prioritize the risks by evaluating each one
  • Decide on the course of action
  • Act to prevent these hazards
  • Monitor and review the completed stress risk assessment

Involving employees in this process is crucial as they are the ones directly experiencing working conditions. Not only that but having everyone involved at the leadership level is important too as they are the ones providing the necessary resources to perform a risk assessment.

Improving the workplace is a team effort!

Identifying Harmful Psychological Environments

Learning to identify types of harmful psychosocial environments is perhaps the single most important aspect of learning to manage psychosocial risks within the workplace. Psychologically hazardous conditions can set the company back several steps in terms of productivity, as this article has already mentioned. But what exactly should employers be looking for?

Look at the following examples of commonly found psychosocial hazards:

  • Pacing and Workload – Pressure to meet unreasonable deadlines, too much work, not enough work, or even the pacing of a machine can negatively impact workers.
  • Nature of Work – Meaningless work or dealing with difficult people can be mentally exhausting. Not to mention the underutilization of talent, this is one of the eight wastes of Lean already recognized by many organizations.
  • Scheduling – Time spent working takes up a significant part of our day, the ability to provide a regular and unwavering schedule enables the employee to adjust to meet their own work/home life balance.
  • Control – Employees want their voices to be heard. By refusing to allow them to participate in the decision-making process or not listening to their concerns about working conditions, expect a high turnover rate.
  • Workplace Environment – A lack of space, poor ventilation, poor lighting, and too much background noise can negatively impact workplace productivity.
  • Workplace Culture – Poor communication and managerial support, as well as a lack of support regarding problem solving, creates a work culture that is lacking in innovation due to constant dismissal of ideas.
  • Workplace Relationships – Any sort of harassment or bullying falls into this category.
  • Career Development Opportunities – Poor compensation, job insecurity, or career stagnation can lead to dissatisfaction.

Identifying these problems can be difficult. To combat that, talk to employees. This means going on a Gemba walk to observe what’s happening on the factory floor or in the office. It also means being more observant of employee behavior. Take the time to look for signs of depression, absenteeism, a reduction in productivity, troubles with employee retention, accidents, and listen to complaints from employees.

While change may be hard to accept, it’s an important step for continually improving the workplace. Something that all workplaces should strive for.

Monetary and Productivity Losses Associated with Poor Mental Health

Now that we’ve gone over how to manage mental health in the workplace, including what to look for regarding workplace psychosocial risks, it’s time to dive into the world of monetary loss. There are four factors that go into loss in productivity as well as loss in value within a workplace. Those include:

  1. Absenteeism
  2. Presenteeism
  3. Healthcare costs
  4. Recruitment and rehiring costs

The Oxford definition of absenteeism is “the practice of regularly staying away from work without good reason.” However, the phrase “without good reason” is flawed because staying away from work can mean employees are experiencing emotional and physical symptoms that severely impair their capability to work, or they may even be avoiding workplace hostility. Employees with depression or other mental health disorders miss up to or more than 27 days of work per year due to their illness exacerbated by their working environment.

Presenteeism is defined as the act of coming to work even though the employee’s mental state is not conducive to being productive. Unhealthy employees at work miss deadlines and have problems going about normal tasks. This directly impact’s the employer in terms of time and money.

Mental health has been known to drive up health insurance costs for employers. This is primarily because people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and other life-threatening conditions that require regular medical treatment, are also susceptible to mental illnesses. Treating both illnesses unfortunately cost more in terms of health insurance, of which many employers pay for.

Lastly, poor employee retention because of a lack of mental health support from employers costs them in terms of the rehiring process. Looking for new hires takes out time and money within the employer’s day. Also, as people quit the remaining workforce becomes overstrained as they pick up slack. Poor employee retention leads to a vicious cycle of always being understaffed because of employees quitting, which causes more employees to quit because of stress, and so on.

Absenteeism, presenteeism, and high turnover rates account for most of the productivity decline in workplaces where employees aren’t given the right resources when it comes to managing their mental health. When those who suffer from these ailments take time off or are not fully present while at work, their co-workers may not be able to manage at the same capacity. This only leads to the possibility of more defects, and therefore, more unsatisfied customers.

The point here is that by putting more into an OH&S management strategy, the negative trickle-down effect of poorly maintained mental health for workers may be controlled.

The Benefits Associated with Following ISO 45003

There are all kinds of positive outcomes the company has the potential of seeing if ISO 45003 is implemented correctly. The following are only a handful of examples:

  • Improved employee retention
  • Increased diversity as well as an easier time recruiting
  • Improved employee engagement
  • Higher levels of innovation
  • Less worker absences

All these positive outcomes directly impact workplace productivity. Having a supportive workplace that protects workers from negative psychosocial environments, has the potential to have a profound impact on job satisfaction.


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