Mental health in the workplace is a significant aspect of overall employee well-being and a critical factor influencing productivity, engagement, and satisfaction. Good mental health enables employees to realize their full potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute effectively to their teams and the organization.
However, workplace stress, the lack of work-life balance, or exposure to negative workplace environments can significantly impact an individual’s mental health, potentially leading to conditions such as anxiety and depression.
For instance, excessive workload, tight deadlines, lack of autonomy, poor interpersonal relationships, or job insecurity can contribute to stress and burnout.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant shift towards remote working have brought forth additional mental health challenges, including feelings of isolation and difficulties in maintaining work-life boundaries.
Beyond Health & Safety
Over the past number of decades, organisations have prioritised the reduction of physical risks, such as accidents or incidents in the workplace to ensure employee health and safety. We have seen tremendous progress in protecting worker safety, however with little attention to mental health aspects, or ‘psychological safety’, often labelled as ‘workplace stress’ in Health and Safety systems1.
Fortunately, effective management of health and safety in the workplace has now been extended beyond mere prevention of physical risk to address potential psychological harm to employees from the work that they do and where they do it.
Psychological risk is now considered just as important as other workplace hazards and protecting employee mental health has become an employer’s duty of care to protect2.
For this reason, ISO 45003 has been introduced as a new global standard for managing risks to employee psychological health in the workplace which provides methods of best practice within an occupational health and safety (OH&S) management system
Ideally, a psychologically safe work environment is one that supports employee mental wellbeing and ensures to protect mental health by avoiding harm or negligence.
Mental health can be affected by hazards and risks in the psychosocial environment relating to organisational culture and the organisation of work3. Such hazards can include discrimination, stress from excessive workloads, conflicting demands, poor communication, job burnout from long-term work demands, or harassment and bullying.
A consequence of psychological hazards is that they can also give rise to many physical health problems, such as heart conditions, stroke, high blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, or diabetes, over time.
This results in a significant cost to business and burden to society due to illness and absenteeism1. According to the Centre for Mental Health, the cost of mental health problems was a record £119 billion in the UK between 2019 and 2020, with one-fifth of working days lost due to anxiety and depression caused directly by work4.
Effects of COVID – 19
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for an ISO standard and a human-centred approach to health and safety has been strengthened and prioritised2. The pandemic has had a profound effect on global society, particularly in the areas of mental and physical health. It has also occurred against a cultural and environmental backdrop of already increased mental health issues5.
Psychological health has persisted to be a major issue in the workplace, with psychological distress contributing to long-term sickness absences and costing economies Billions2. Yet, it has been an area that many organisations have felt ill equipped to deal with.
However, there now exists an opportunity to go beyond individual-level interventions, such as mental health awareness, stress management and employee assistance programs to begin to change the way we work, to create work tasks and structures that do not harm employees6.
Health and wellbeing challenges can affect any organisation and with the added disruption that the pandemic and economic uncertainty has brought, psychological health and safety becomes essential to ensure organisational resilience, sustainability, and success.
Fortunately, psychological safety can be attained by identifying root causes of work-related psychological ill health, actioning the appropriate targeted solutions, while recognising that it is a multi-faceted issue requiring a holistic approach in the workplace2.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of employees across the globe. The sudden transition to remote work, coupled with the fear and uncertainty associated with the virus, has increased stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Employees working from home have faced feelings of isolation and loneliness due to reduced face-to-face interaction with their colleagues.
The boundaries between work and personal life have become blurred, leading many to overwork, which in turn has increased instances of burnout. The heightened uncertainty of job security, given the economic instability, has further contributed to anxiety and stress.
Moreover, closure of schools and childcare facilities has placed additional stress on employees who now find themselves juggling professional responsibilities with full-time caregiving roles. This increased workload and lack of separation between work and personal life can lead to elevated stress levels and mental health concerns.
Additionally, for those employees whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, concerns about potential exposure to the virus at work have increased stress and anxiety levels.
Employers can play a crucial role in mitigating these impacts by fostering an open dialogue about mental health, providing resources for mental health support, offering flexible work arrangements where possible, and maintaining regular communication with their employees.
As we navigate these unprecedented times, empathy, understanding, and support from employers towards their employees’ mental health concerns are more important than ever.
Psychosocial hazards can arise in a number of and combination of ways; by how work is organised, social aspects of work, the work environment itself and hazardous tasks which may impact health, safety and wellbeing on an individual level and performance and sustainability at an organisational level7. Some of the implications of psychosocial risks are:
- Increased economic burden to organisations and society.
- Negative organisational impacts, such as absenteeism, high turnover, reduced quality of products or services and litigation risks.
- Negative employee impact, resulting in poor health conditions (diabetes, cardiovascular disease) as well as poor health behaviours, such as substance use and unhealthy eating habits.
- Overall reduced job satisfaction, productivity, and commitment.
However, effective management of psychosocial risk can increase:
- Innovation and creativity
- Employee engagement
- Job satisfaction
- Organisational stability
There have been many challenges in effectively targeting psychosocial risks. Firstly, the priority of many organisations to date has been to focus on health promotion and awareness, rather than potential psychological damage due to work factors.
The emphasis has also been on individual level controls, such as employee ability to withstand stress, as opposed to impacting organisational factors. There has also been a lack of clarity in ownership, whether psychosocial risk is due to individual-level vulnerability or poor work design.
Another challenge is that historically, psychological factors have not been considered relevant to safety and there is a lack of clarity in terminology and understanding to enable a systematic approach to reducing risks. So, how can psychosocial risks be effectively targeted and reduced in the workplace?
Managing psychosocial risks: The New ISO 45003
ISO 45003 is a new global standard for managing risks to employee psychological health in the workplace which provides methods of best practice within an occupational health and safety (OH&S) management system. This world-first document is a preventative strategy that organisations can use to minimise risk of work-related injury or ill health at work, and to overall promote wellbeing. It is now considered an obligation of organisations to identify psychosocial hazards and minimise risks associated with them before they occur. However effective risk management depends strongly on commitment from all levels, particularly top-level management with a focus on individual and organisational level responsibilities7.
How can the ISO 45003 promote psychological health and safety?
According to Caponecchia (2020), there are many ways that the new ISO can prevent psychosocial risk and promote overall psychological health and safety in the workplace8. Firstly, it helps to align psychological health & safety practices within occupational health and safety management systems. With the considerable effort that organisations take to protect against physical injury in the workplace, consideration of psychological wellbeing should now be an extension and central consideration in a safety management system9. The ISO 45003 has been written to support organisations that already have an OH&S management system in place and also to guide those that have not yet implemented a system as a way to help manage psychosocial risk and protect mental health2.
Secondly, it provides important guidance on how to reduce risk by providing examples of hazards and risk controls. It also holds symbolic value in the sense that it guides organisations to what they should do and what employees should come to expect. This ISO document has been building for a long time and is a culmination of years of research, legislative work, injury and compensation data, guidance and codes of practice. Finally, this is also timely as COVID-19 has pushed the importance of psychological health at work to the foreground10.
What your organisation can do
Companies can play a vital role in promoting and improving the mental health of their employees. One fundamental way is by creating a positive, supportive work environment.
Employers should encourage open conversations about mental health and well-being, aiming to reduce stigma and make employees feel comfortable discussing these topics. Regular check-ins or team meetings can provide forums for these conversations, and supervisors can set an example by speaking openly about their own experiences and self-care strategies.
Implementing flexible work policies can also help improve employees’ mental health. Flexibility in work hours and location can reduce stress and make it easier for employees to balance work and personal responsibilities.
Companies should also ensure that employees are not expected to be available 24/7 and that they are encouraged to take breaks and time off. In addition, companies should provide resources for mental health support.
This can include offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide confidential counseling services, hosting workshops or training sessions on stress management and mental health, or providing resources for self-care and mindfulness activities. Health insurance policies should also cover mental health services.
Moreover, it’s crucial for companies to ensure workload is reasonable and employees aren’t constantly under excessive pressure. Providing employees with clear job descriptions, achievable goals, and resources to perform their tasks can significantly reduce work-related stress.
Regular physical activity can also significantly improve mental health. Employers can encourage this by offering wellness programs, virtual fitness classes, or incentives for physical activity.
Finally, recognizing and appreciating employees’ efforts goes a long way in boosting their morale and mental health. Employers should make it a point to acknowledge the hard work of their team members, celebrate successes, and provide positive feedback.
Prioritise Mental Health to Improve Productivity
Talk to us at Zevo Health about some of our services to help promote psychological safety and protect mental health in the workplace:
- Mental Health Champion training
- Mental Health Policy guidance
- Psychological health & safety risk assessment
- Introduction to Psychological Health & Safety- Leadership training
- PH&S ISO Accreditation
1 Vickers, J. (2021). Understanding Psychosocial Risks at Work. Human Focus: https://humanfocus.co.uk/blog/psychological-health-and-safety/
2 HSE Network (2020). https://www.hse-network.com/iso-45003-and-the-need-for-psychological-health-and-safety/
3 CCOHS (2022). Mental Health- Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Workplace. OSH Answers Fact Sheets: https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/mentalhealth_risk.html
4 0’ Shea, N. & Bell, A. (2020). A spending eview for wellbeing. Centre for Mental Health, 28th July 2020: https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/publications/spending-review-wellbeing
5 Holmes., E. A. et al., (2020). Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7, 6, 547-560.
6 Caponecchia, C & Mayland, E (2020). Transitioning to job redesign: improving workplace health and safety in the COVID-19 era. Occu Environ Med, http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/oemed-2020-106969
7 ISO (2021). ISO 45003:2021. Occupational health and safety management- Psychological health ans Safety at work- Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. https://www.iso.org/standard/64283.html
8 Caponecchia, C. (2020). ISO 45003- The Changing Landscape for Managing Psychosocial Risks. IOSH Webinar, 30th September, UNSW Sydney: https://iosh.com/media/8617/ioshpresentation_caponecchia_29sep20.pdf
9 ISO 45001:2018 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems – Requirements with guidance for use. Geneva: International Standards Organization
10 WHO (March 2020) Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/331490/WHO-2019-nCoV-MentalHealth-2020.1-eng.pdf