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Legal spotlight - August 21

22 July 2021

ISO 45003 marks a significant step forward in equipping employers with an understanding and appreciation of the impact psychosocial hazards can have on individuals. Kevin Bridges says the aim is to promote psychological wellbeing in the workplace and embed it in an organisation’s culture.

PSYCHOSOCIAL HAZARDS relate to how work is organised, social factors at work and aspects of the work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks. Psychosocial risks can affect both psychological health and safety, and health, safety and well-being at work more broadly. Employers have a general duty to take all reasonable steps to safeguard the safety and health of their workers and others. Awareness that this extends to mental as well as physical safety and health has been growing for some time, with various initiatives launched which are designed to improve and safeguard the mental health of workers. 

Applicable to organisations of all sizes and in all sectors, ISO45003 does not change underlying legal requirements, but instead sets out internationally agreed guidelines for managing psychosocial risk within an occupational health and safety (OH&S) management system based on ISO45001. It aims to enable organizations of all sizes and in all sectors to prevent work-related injury and ill health of their workers and other interested parties, and to promote well-being at work. 

ISO45003 outlines examples of psychosocial hazards arising from work organization, social factors and work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks, as well as a range of control measures that can be used to eliminate hazards or minimize associated risks. It includes information on what is important for organizations to consider in relation to raising awareness of psychosocial risks, developing competence in the management of psychosocial risks, supporting the recovery and return to work of affected workers, and planning for and responding to emergency situations.

Continuing a theme developed in other compliance areas, the document also recognises the significance of top level commitment and worker engagement in driving improvements. ISO 45003 takes the management of psychosocial risk way beyond the remit of the traditional OH&S professional. Ownership and visible leadership on this issue starts with senior management with specific provision within the standard for leadership, clarification of organisational roles and communication with the workforce. Furthermore, the factors within the standard that organisations are required to consider during the planning process means that Human Resources and OHS professionals in particular, but also Risk Managers and in-house legal, will need to collaborate in order to consider the organisational approach to managing this risk and allocation of responsibilities.

For organisations operating solely in the UK, ISO45003 will complement existing Management Standards published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2004 to help organisations understand what they need to do to assess and manage the risks to employee wellbeing posed by work-related stress. Consequently, the UK now has a well-developed set of regulatory standards in this area. For organisations operating a global business with a footprint in various jurisdictions, and where pre-existing standards such as the Management Standards don’t exist, ISO 45003 presents an opportunity to standardise the approach taken to ensuring employee mental health throughout the business.

Although not mandatory, compliance with ISO45003 is also likely to help persuade regulators, such as the HSE, that an organisation has met its obligations in this area. Whilst publication of the standard, of itself, is not likely to shift the dial immediately in terms of the number of investigations or prosecutions, it is likely to require organisations to become more sophisticated at gathering and analysing relevant evidence in order to match the growing expertise being displayed by the regulators.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, the increasing emphasis on improving worker wellbeing is likely to continue. ISO45003 provides detailed and practical guidance against which organisations can audit themselves (internally and/or externally) to understand where they currently stand in being able to deliver against this objective. As a result, organisations will be able to put in place detailed action plans addressing each aspect of the standard that will allow them to understand what data they need to collect to evaluate performance and who, within organisations, will be required to deliver against those actions.

The need for organisations to take such action is not just a matter of regulatory compliance. This is, fundamentally, a matter of business performance and moral leadership in a challenging global economy. 

Kevin Bridges is a partner and head of health and safety at Pinsent Masons. For more information, visit www.pinsentmasons.com