People are the heart of any organization, and ensuring their psychological well-being is a critical part of managing the overall occupational health of the organization’s human capital. Psychosocial workplace issues, broadly referred to as “stress” have been present in the workplace for as long as there have been workers. However, the past 18 months and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated some of the usual issues. Increased stress related to being disconnected from colleagues, problems dealing with remote working, added stress at home with families, and fear of contracting the virus has created a new level of strain on workers. 

The new ISO 45003 standard is intended to dovetail into an organization’s existing EHS management system, and more specifically the ISO 45001 management system structure. ISO 45003 provides details on how psychosocial risks develop, the associated symptoms, the effect on the worker and organization, and suggestions on how to manage these risks.  

What are psychosocial risks? 

Psychosocial risks are issues that may impact workers’ psychological response to their work and workplace conditions, including working relationships with supervisors and co-workers. Psychosocial risks can be created by a variety of factors, including work design and organization, social factors, or the work environment and work tasks themselves. See Table 1 below: (Summarized Extract from ISO 45003:2021) Some or all of the risks can be present, and a combination of one or more of these areas of potential hazards could compound the levels of psychosocial stress and risk. 

Hazard Factors 

Areas of Potential Concern 

Work Design and Organization 

  • Lack of clarity of roles and expectations; frequent organizational change 
  • Job control or work autonomy 
  • Management of job demands, remote and isolated work 
  • Workload and work pace match 
  • Working hours and work schedule 
  • Job security 

Social Factors 

  • Lack of clear leadership 
  • Lack of effective supervision 
  • Interpersonal relationships at work 
  • Organizational culture 
  • Civility, harassment, workplace violence 
  • Recognition and reward, and career development paths 
  • Support (internal and external), and training 
  • Work/life balance 

Work Environment and Work Tasks 

  • Poor workplace conditions (lighting, space, noise, ventilation) 
  • Inadequate or lack of necessary equipment, equipment reliability and maintenance 
  • Working in extreme or hazardous conditions 

 

How do you know if your workers are being affected by one or more of these psychosocial issues?  

There are several indicators, both behavioral and organizational that may indicate there is an issue with an individual or group of workers. These can include: 

  • A reduction in the quality of work being performed 
  • Increased frequency of incidents or errors 
  • Changes in worker behavior, including lack of engagement at work, avoiding working with others on a team, and frequent conflicts with others 
  • Increased absenteeism 
  • Social isolation, neglecting personal well-being 
  • A general increase in staff turnover 

What are some of the potential negative effects of psychosocial risks? 

For the worker, psychosocial issues can result in poor overall health (anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and stress-related cardiovascular problems). It can also manifest itself in unhealthy behaviors (substance abuse, eating disorders). 

For the organization, it can result in increased costs due to higher absenteeism, worker turnover, reduction in quality of produced goods, reputation damage, and in some cases, costly litigation due to workers’ claims. 

What can an organization do to prevent potential psychosocial risks, or mitigate existing psychosocial risks? 

Establish an open communication process and engage with workers, genuinely listening to their concerns, assuring them their perspectives are welcome and will be considered without retaliation. Care must be taken during this process to avoid pushback, considering the sensitive nature and potential impact of psychosocial issues. Using the worker feedback,  begin to identify and understand the psychosocial issues and hazards present in your workplace.  

Once identified, the psychosocial issues should be dealt with via a risk assessment process. Once the hazards and potential negative outcomes have been documented, the planning process should establish objectives that consider the needs and expectations of the workers. This may then require dedicating resources to work towards the objectives, addressing the hazards, and mitigating the potential risks. 

Managing psychosocial risk should be part of any EHS program during the planning, implementing, reviewing, evaluating, and improving the process. Fostering a culture of open communication between workers and supervisors is essential to business success, and ISO 45003 can provide the foundation. Allowing open dialogue about workplace stress will reduce strain on workers and improve business outcomes by reducing operational and safety risks across the organization.  

What If I Don’t Have an ISO 45001 Management System Structure? 

ISO 45003 is not the only guidance document that has a focus on psychosocial risks in the workplace. If your organization is interested in implementing an ISO management system structure, you can still address these factors successfully by adapting the elements outlined in Total Worker Health®. Total Worker Health® is a flexible, holistic approach from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that addresses worker wellbeing, and includes the following five elements: 

  1.  Demonstrate leadership commitment to worker safety and health at all levels of the organization; 
  2. Design work to eliminate or reduce safety and health hazards and promote worker well-being; 
  3. Promote and support worker engagement throughout program design and implementation; 
  4. Ensure confidentiality and privacy of workers; and 
  5. Integrate relevant systems to advance worker wellbeing. 

Want to learn more about ISO 45003 or developing a management system that integrates psychosocial elements? Reach out to an Antea Group consultant to get started! 

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