A new era for mental health at work

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on our emotional and mental health. Yet while the impact has been devastating, it has also stimulated positive change in the world of work. 

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Por Kath Lockett
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As the COVID-19 crisis grinds on, the forecast for the world’s economy is looking bleak indeed. In its World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2022 report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warns of an “uncertain recovery” as the pandemic continues to significantly affect labour markets.

Global unemployment is expected to remain above pre-COVID-19 levels until at least 2023, with the report also suggesting the overall impact on employment could be significantly higher because many people left the labour force during the pandemic. In 2022, the global labour force participation rate is projected to remain 1.2 percentage points below that of 2019, or the equivalent of 52 million full-time jobs. This downgrade reflects the impact the pandemic has had on the world of work and the uncertainty facing employers and workers in the immediate future.

Acting together 

One silver lining amid all the disruption is that the pandemic has helped raise awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace. To address the issue, new guidelines and standards have been developed to help employers create the right environment for the physical and mental safety of their workers, regardless of whether the work is being done on site or online at home. Aligning with the ILO’s slogan “Let’s Act Together”, ISO has been leading the way in working with experts around the globe to recognize, develop and implement standards to increase and maintain safety at work.

ISO 45003, a global standard giving practical guidance on managing psychological health in the workplace, is the latest addition to ISO’s series on occupational health and safety (OH&S). Its primary purpose is to define psychosocial hazards and develop a management framework that recognizes them as major challenges to health, safety and well-being at work. 

Organizations have a significant role to play in eliminating psychosocial hazards. 

Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. These may include work organization, social factors such as excessive working hours, poor leadership or bullying, as well as physical aspects of the work environment, equipment and exposure to hazardous tasks. They can be present in all organizations and across all sectors.

Impact on health 

Psychosocial hazards can occur in combination with one another or be exacerbated by other hazards. Psychosocial risk relates to the potential of these hazards to negatively impact individual health, safety and well-being, as well as organizational performance and sustainability. ISO has long recognized the importance of psychosocial risks being managed in a manner consistent with other risks through an OH&S management system. ISO 45003 represents an affirmative step towards employee well-being with an integrated approach that fits easily into an organization’s broader business processes.

Psychosocial risks affect both psychological health and safety, and health, safety and well-being at work more broadly. Psychosocial risks are also associated with economic costs to organizations and society. Negative outcomes for workers can include poor health and associated conditions (e.g. cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, diabetes, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders) and connected poor health behaviours (e.g. substance misuse, unhealthy eating), plus reduced job satisfaction, commitment and productivity. Managing psychosocial risks adequately can act positively on an employee’s overall well-being and performance at work.

For the organization, the impact of psychosocial risks includes increased costs due to absence from work, turnover, reduced product or service quality, recruitment and training, workplace investigations and litigation, as well as damage to the organization’s reputation. Although numerous factors can determine the nature and severity of outcomes, organizations have a significant role to play in eliminating psychosocial hazards or minimizing risks.  

Five African women walk across the barren landscape carrying water tanks on their backs.

Partners for health 

Effective management of psychosocial risk using standards can bring many benefits such as improved worker engagement, enhanced productivity, increased innovation and organizational sustainability. In the case of ISO 45003, psychosocial hazards arising from work organization, social factors, environment, equipment and hazardous tasks are listed and connected to a range of control measures that can be used to eliminate these hazards or minimize associated risks. While organizations have the primary responsibility for managing these issues, the inclusion of workers in all stages of the process is critical to successfully managing psychosocial risks. 

Dr  Carlo Caponecchia, Associate Professor Equity Diversity and Inclusion, Faculty of Science, at the University of New South Wales, believes that the worldwide disruptions created by the COVID-19 pandemic meant the importance of maintaining good mental health in the workplace and when working from home became an issue for employers that was far larger than ergonomics. “People used to see mental health issues as something that the individual had to tackle on their own, but in the past two years, there has been significant progress in recognizing that the workplace, employer attitudes and tools to identify and address these issues are also key factors,” he says.

The dramatic change to social interaction resulting from having to work remotely created stark challenges for employees. These varied depending on the home environment, age, family commitments, cultural values, demographics and other external factors. “ISO 45003 draws a distinction between the safety management framework needed for the physical environment and a management system that can be tailored to your specific risks and work environment for mental health as well,” asserts Dr Caponecchia. “The pandemic served to highlight an issue that most of us had been aware of for many years and placed it at the forefront of safety issues faced by most workers.”

A question of trust 

Senior Psychologist Prof. Peter Kelly expands on this issue by explaining that trust and relationships between employers and workers also came into focus during the pandemic. “Before the pandemic, ergonomics appeared to be the barrier to more people working from home, but during the pandemic workers were trusted to work effectively and efficiently from home,” he explains.

“The pandemic effectively took away the control from many employers and managers, yet the workers showed how they could still provide high-quality results, remain contactable and be trusted to get on with their jobs.” 

Supporting mental health within organizations has never been more urgent. 

Mental health issues naturally increase during moments in history such as recession, conflict or during pandemics and this is the first time in a century that we are experiencing all three at once. “The positive aspect,” Dr Caponecchia says, “is that we now know so much more about mental health issues. Through ISO 45003, we have provided the tools and the framework to reduce the negative side effects of this unparalleled time in our history.”

Accessible to all 

The COVID-19 crisis has transformed the way people live and work. Drastic changes to workplaces, working hours, locations worked and reduced physical meetings have had long-lasting consequences on people’s mental well-being and self-rated health. 

Supporting mental health within organizations has therefore never been more urgent. “ISO 45003 provides guidelines on how to more accurately monitor the mental health of workers, whilst also including them in planning for a safer workplace and helping them feel comfortable participating in the process of reporting on it,” Prof. Peter Kelly says.

As companies start to invest more in mental health, employees have also increased their expectations. To help organizations navigate the legal, staff and public relations complexities during and after the pandemic, ISO has made ISO 45003 available free of charge.

The future of workplace mental health demands a culture change, with more compassion, understanding and sustainable ways of working. We’ve already started down this path thanks to COVID-19, let’s use the moment to open a new era for mental health at work.

Download ISO 45003 

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