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ISO 45003 – is this a game changer for Psychological Health and Safety?

The workplace is constantly striving to know what ‘good’ looks like and when we start working with a client this is often front of mind for workplace mental health.  Probe a bit deeper, we find that behind this question is often a desire for a roadmap, checklist or do’s and don’t’s.

ISO 45003 is an occupational health and safety (OH&S) global standard, launched in June 2021, which outlines how to manage and protect mental health at work and could be seen by employers as part of the answer.  This framework focuses on psychological hazards and asks employers to give consideration for activities that could impact mental health to prevent injury and promote wellbeing.  To help employers there are guidelines for managing ‘psychosocial risk’ or the aspects of work that might impact our mental health.  This is aligned to the established standard of ISO 45001, broadening the responsibility of wellbeing beyond HR to Health and Safety.

Mental Health is everyone’s responsibility

In our view there is much that the workplace can do to ensure safety within the mental health agenda, protecting individuals from discrimination and reducing risks.  However, this is different to the traditional model of health and safety, which focusses on finding the areas of risk and near misses and putting procedures in place to mitigate a re-occurrence, along with assigned responsibility holders.

Mental health in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility, but that doesn’t mean that anyone needs to be an expert in mental health.  We all need to be experts in having open and natural conversations, to know where and how to signpost for support and be in a working environment that supports both the conversation and any the outcome.  We know that this isn’t easy.

What is psychological health and safety?

Psychological safety is the ability to show our true selves at work, without fear of repercussion. There are considerable proven benefits to psychologically safe workplaces, including better decision-making, more inclusive teams, and a higher willingness to take risks.  Employees will often be the first to notice when things aren’t working as they should and, if they feel safe to speak out, without repercussions then this presents an early opportunity for a business to act and make adjustments to correct.

The guidelines under ISO45003 could be one useful framework for considering progress and gaps around psychological health and safety and the broader mental health agenda in an organisation.  However, a Wellbeing Strategy is more comprehensive and works towards the steps required to provide a safe and open workplace and this will have a number of different routes depending on the desired outcomes.  Unfortunately audits and checklists, alone will not change workplace culture.

Strengthening workplace culture around mental health

 At Mental Health at Work we use a model to consider the components of success, providing a framework to track progress, but retaining flexibility for each individual organisation to consider diversity and inclusion, prevent harm, promote growth and mitigate illness, which together will strengthen and improve culture around workplace mental health.

The role of Leaders

Leaders are of course critical and can support psychological safety by creating a climate that reduces risk, changes mindsets, and behaviours within their teams and role models a culture of positive mental health.

However, this is not just the right thing to do. Creating a safe climate demonstrates that as a leader you are serious about reducing the risks around burnout and illness and that you are fulfilling legal responsibilities and duty of care to staff.

Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, makes a great point when she warns us to “not prioritse standards over strategy. Guidelines are helpful but standards risk high levels of bureaucracy. When people are not psychologically safe, authentic conversations suffer and employees are at risk”

Research from McKinsey & Co (1) finds that a positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety. This builds a base for a high performing health team that can be challenged to achieve more.

One size doesn’t fit all

ISO45003 is a proactive attempt to encourage more organisations to consider mental health as an integral part of working lives and is a timely evolution of ISO45001.  If you are a Health and Safety professional with responsibility for mental health this in-depth and rigourous approach will be familiar and may be a comfortable first step.  However, ISO45003 is not an accreditation in of itself and narrowing the view of workplace mental health to psychosocial impacts does limit the role of the workplace and misses the opportunity to consider the whole person.  Process, reporting and ongoing improvement are essential steps, but guidelines cannot provide us with the skills and trust to have conversations about mental health and without this we cannot create a psychologically safe environment.

Developing and implementing workplace mental health strategies is an evolutionary journey and one size does not fit all.  At Mental Health at Work we support organisations to develop capability around mental health, developing and delivering customised mental health programmes that are outcome focussed, are considerate of psychological health and safety and critically are skills based.    

Employees need to feel comfortable as human beings and able to be their true selves; a culture with transparency, openness and inclusivity and where mistakes are ok. Frameworks and checklists won’t change hearts and minds about workplace mental health, but the conversations will.

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