Employers Face Urgent Need to Address Psychosocial Risks

ISO 45001 can help manage psychosocial risks in the workplace.

Phil Molé
May 24, 2021

Safety managers have many different workplace risks to assess and control, but they don’t always adequately identify and address psychosocial risks. These are sources of anxiety for workers that result from a multitude of potential factors, including the ways that work is organized (lengths of shifts, numbers of consecutive days worked), how job tasks or the work environment are designed, or lack of inclusion in decision-making regarding workers’ safety.

Mental distress has been found to increase risk for workplace safety incidents, adversely affecting risk recognition for workers both on and off the job. Some people may experience fatigue as a symptom of mental distress, or substance use disorder, increasing the risk for impairment in the workplace. Addressing stress and mental distress in the workforce can help lower risk for workplace incidents.

Here, we’ll look at how the management of psychosocial risks fits into the framework of an effective safety management system, particularly as defined by ISO 45001.

Psychosocial Risks in a Safety Management System

ISO 45001 is a voluntary standard for Occupational Safety & Health (OHS) developed by the International Organization for Standardization and published in 2018. One of the distinguishing features of ISO 45001, compared to previous OHS management system standards, is that it takes an expanded view of safety. Heavy focus is placed on involvement of the workforce in safety, and on identification and control of all categories of risks. This can help organizations develop a good working framework for managing psychosocial risks alongside other more obvious workplace risks.

A partial list of sections of ISO 45001 relevant to management of psychosocial risks includes:

5.4: Consultation and participation of workers — This section states that the organization must establish and maintain a process for consultation and participation of all workers at all levels, and specifically notes that non-managerial employees must be included in safety management decisions. Failure to meaningfully involve workers in safety management not only deprives us of potentially valuable insights and input, but also introduces psychosocial risks due to the anxiety of feeling “unheard” and isolated.

6.1 Actions to address risks and opportunities — Everything in safety management ultimately comes down to the identification and control of risks. Psychosocial risks are a major category of workplace risks, and often go unidentified and unaddressed.

7.1 Resources — The organization needs to provide the resources necessary to establish, implement, maintain and continually improve safety management. The resources required will vary depending on the workplace and the nature of psychosocial risks present. This may include an investment in the redesign of workstations to reduce stress associated with poor ergonomics or offering mental health resources for the benefit of workers’ wellbeing.

8.1.2 Eliminating hazards and reducing OHS risks — This is where organizations do their best to eliminate the source of risks – i.e. hazards – and reduce the likelihood and severity associated with remaining risks, including sources of psychosocial risks.

Key Takeaways

There is added urgency to address psychosocial risks due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on mental health. A recent Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study found that the prevalence of depression among U.S. adults is more than three times greater than it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study reported that levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use and thoughts of suicide by adults in the U.S. during the pandemic in 2020 were significantly higher than levels reported during the same period in 2019.

Now more than ever, we need a safety management system that addresses all workplace risks, including psychosocial risks. A key to success will be finding new ways of keeping workers connected to our safety programs, as well as empowering workers to take a more active role in safety management tasks like inspections and incident investigations. Better visibility of safety data is a big first-step toward fostering better buy-in and reducing employee anxiety. The right safety management software can help us get the visibility and efficiency we need to improve safety performance, reduce psychosocial risks, and adapt to future challenges.

The new NSC Mental Health Cost Calculator can also help you get started.

Phil Molé

Phil Molé is an EHS and sustainability expert at VelocityEHS.

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