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  • Writer's pictureJames Fairview

Will ISO 45003 (Psychological Health and Safety) Improve Workplace Mental Health?

ISO 45003 is part of the ISO 45000 range of management standards, which relate to health and safety at work. ISO 45003 relates to psychological health and safety. But how popular will ISO 45003 be and will it have a significant effect?

Management standards have been around for more than forty years. ISO 9001 was first published in 1987, with its UK’s predecessor, BS 5750, having been introduced over a decade earlier. Management standards sometimes follow legislation, although it may be decades after a change in the law before a related management standard emerges. Physical health and safety management standards became unified (in the form of OHSAS 18001) in 1999, nearly thirty years after the introduction of the US’s Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and twenty-five years after the introduction of the UK’s Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Globalisation has played a key role in the unification of what previously were country-level management standards. With an international reach, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) has issued tens of thousands of management standards since its introduction in 1947. However, mental health has lagged behind compared to other standards. That is about to change, as ISO 45003 will be implemented in 2021.

As we have seen with OHSAS 18001, laws and law enforcement may play a part in management standard take-up. At a country level, workplace mental health laws have been progressing at a different pace. In Australia, health and safety laws expressly included psychological health and safety, and have done so for a decade or so. In the US, health and safety law expressly states it applies to physical health and safety, seemingly excluding mental health. In the UK, health and safety law neither expressly relates to physical or mental health, however the UK health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, is increasingly including mental health in its guidance notes. However, surprisingly, it does not enforce its own rules as they relate to workplace mental health. No matter how significant a mental health issue or breach, the HSE takes no action.

So, what can we learn from this backstory? Perhaps organisations are most likely to invest in management standards that directly affects their customers’ perception of their product or service, hence ISO 9001 (which relates to quality) being incredibly popular. Given that for every ten organisations accredited to ISO 9001 (quality) only one is accredited to OHSAS 18001 (health and safety), it appears that management standards related to worker welfare are perceived by organisational leaders to be far less important than standards related to quality and the customer’s perception of it.

The motivation for organisational accreditation to the OHSAS 18001 standard may, therefore, come from the need to comply with the law, especially where the threat of sanctions is high, as with physical health and safety. Given physical health and safety doesn’t relate to quality and customer perception in the same way that quality does, psychological health and safety is unlikely to either. So, the motive for organisations to adopt ISO 45003 may well come down to the need to be legally compliant and from the threat of sanctions.

Here we must reflect on the fact that health and safety law, in the UK and USA at least, does not expressly relate to psychological health and safety, and regulators do not enforce health and safety laws as they relate to mental health. With few organisations being motivated to become accredited to the ISO 45003 standard because of quality and the customer's perception of it, and with no motive related to legal compliance because of no enforcement through sanctions, where does that leave ISO 45003? With limited factors driving the motivation to become accredited, can the International Standards Organisation really expect that many employers to participate?

Of course, progressive organisations will welcome the ISO 45003 standard because they care about their employees. They will be sufficiently motivated to adopt the standard. However, chances are, these organisations will be doing much of what the standard requires in any case, so these employers and their employees won’t have as much to gain from the implementation of ISO 45003.

It seems that until health and safety law expressly relates to mental health, and until regulators enforce the mental health aspects of that law, the vast majority of employers are unlikely to show much interest in ISO 45003 and those that do may stand to gain the least from it.

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