Articles 5 min read

ISO 45003: Part 1 – What it means for workplace mental health, your staff, and you

An employer’s guide to the history-making standard, how it can help drive cultural change, and why it’s sparking a major shake-up of how we understand health and safety.

As any honest employer knows, health and safety is not to be trifled with. Beyond the obvious moral – and let’s not forget, legal – duty to keep your employees free from harm, getting it wrong is awful pricey. 

In 2018/19 (HSE’s most recent dataset with economic info), the cost of workplace injuries to British businesses was £5.6 billion. But that’s barely half the story. Or, to be exact, an eighth. 

Because for all the talk about physical health, mental health exists. Every employee (indeed, every person) has it. And while £5.6bn is by no means small potatoes, it is tiny compared to the UK’s annual bill for poor mental health at work: £45 billion.  

And that’s before you even think about the human cost. If workplace health and safety isn’t taken seriously, employees could experience mental health problems. Lose a limb. Or worse.

So, to ensure every staffer stays safe and healthy, it’s vital you give equal attention to both physical and mental factors.

And, as luck would have it, that’s exactly what ISO 45003 is about. 

Health and safety, reborn

Published in June 2021, ISO 45003 is a big deal. Why? For the very first time, it provides a formal framework for how to manage, and protect, mental wellbeing at work. How? By plugging the gap in current workplace safety guidance, via the long-overdue intro of ‘psychosocial hazards’. 

These, according to Unmind’s Head of Psychology, Heather Bolton, are “things that might impact employees’ psychological response to their work and workplace conditions. 

“Examples include excessive workloads, tight deadlines, conflicting demands or a lack of control over ways of working. Just like physical risk factors, the accumulation of psychosocial risks can lead to poor health outcomes like stress, burnout or depression.”

ISO 45003, in full, is a pretty hefty read. And each business will consume, understand and apply its wisdom differently. That said, if it helps, we’d say the content breaks down into three main themes:

  • How work is organised

A bone-deep exploration of how we work. Looking at roles and expectations (does a staffer’s job have purpose, and value?), job control, role demands (is a worker’s job description unrealistic? Are their skills underused?), workload, working hours, job security, and much, much more.

  • Social factors at work

Getting personal with the interpersonal (e.g. workplace conflict, lack of social support, poor working relationships), company culture (is L&D encouraged? Are decisions fair?), rewards and benefits. Some are clear risk factors – bullying and violence are objectively stressful – others (like a disconnect between effort and reward), much less so.

  • Work environment 

An obvious-once-you’ve-read-it catalogue of hazards and stressors. Like dodgy equipment (or no tools at all), a subpar environment (no space, loud noises, dim lighting), extreme conditions (working at height, or in very hot or cold temperatures) – all that bad stuff.

But wait, there’s more. For all your ISO need-to-knows, take a look at our quick-fire FAQ below.


ISO 45003: Frequently asked questions

What does ISO stand for? 

ISO = International Organisation of Standardisation. (Yes, we also think it should be IOS, but you try telling them that.) Based in Switzerland, it’s an independent, international, non-governmental body, that brings experts together to solve a wide range of global challenges. 

In very simple terms, the ISO’s job is to define best practice, so the rest of the world can follow. Because when a whole stack of industry specialists agree on the right way to do something, you can trust it’s a pretty solid start-point.

How about the other ISOs – are any relevant here?

The new standard builds on the work of ISO 45001 – which outlines how to create safer working conditions – so you can observe these in tandem if you want to. It’s not essential, though it will help. (Think of it like a James Bond movie – each one is self-contained, but knowledge of the wider 007 universe really helps you stay on top of what’s going on.)  

Are ISO 45003 guidelines mandatory?

Nope, it’s all voluntary. (Although that’s not to say countries won’t introduce legislation around ISO 45003’s recommendations in future.) And, just like 45001, you can get certified. This involves getting an independent third-party in, to check – and ideally, sign-off – on your A+ efforts. 

Of course, given the sample of scary outcomes listed above, asking if you have to comply sort of misses the point. It’s all part of your duty of care, right? ISO 45003 isn’t niche, or for big companies alone. There’s not a business on Earth that wouldn’t be a little better by at least reading (and, ideally, following) the standard. 

That said, do have a word – with colleagues, as well as yourself – about your organisation’s ISO-based aims. Are you keen to embrace this from a corporate social responsibility standpoint? To bolster your employee value proposition? To underscore your upstanding morals? Or simply to score more business? 

No matter what, don’t forget culture and behavioural change takes time. But also that even the smallest steps towards meeting the new guidelines is better than nothing at all.

What’s in it for organisations (and employees)?

Great question. If you like the idea of a healthier and happier workforce, then ISO 45003’s your friend. This stuff matters to company staff – 9 in 10 Australian workers say workplace mental health is important. And while a slim majority (52%) feel their workplace is mentally healthy, those who don’t take four-times the sick leave.

Properly managing these psychosocial risks can positively impact just about every crack and crevice of your organisation. Not only that – reverse the near-endless risks, and these are your many potential benefits. 

What exactly? Another cracking Q. Think greater performance. Employee satisfaction. Fewer absences. Keeping hold of top talent (and attracting talent, too). Improved company reputation. A boost to the bottom line. Oh, and better all-round health and safety. 

Where do I start?

Well, reading ISO 45003 in full is a solid first step. The guidelines are granular, digging deep into all aspects of planning, operation, support, evaluation, improvement, and then some. It’s no Great Gatsby, but then it’s not meant to be. The real power lies in how your company sees, and approaches, the health and safety of your people.  

If you’d like a hard copy, the full thing costs 188 Swiss francs (which, on the day of writing, is a cool $202.49 USD), although you can browse the standard online, for free. Either way, consider this investment (time and/or money) your first step on the long, twist-turny road towards cultural change. 

Because, obviously, to unlock ISO 45003’s full suite of benefits, you must first put in the work. This means combing your company for every conceivable psychosocial hazard, and risk factor – much like a traditional health and safety risk assessment would – then doing everything in your power to stop, or mitigate, these issues.

Remember: this isn’t a solo mission. Getting ISO 45003 right requires buy-in, support and action from all sorts of stakeholders. Don’t fret – the next blog in this series will talk you through who needs to do what.

About Unmind

Unmind is a leading workplace mental health platform that empowers more than 2.5 million employees around the world to live more fulfilling and balanced lives. Underpinned by clinical psychology and powered by technology, the platform helps employees proactively measure, understand, and nurture their own mental health across seven core areas of wellbeing – fulfilment, coping, calmness, happiness, connection, health, and sleep.

With Unmind, leaders are empowered to drive positive cultural change across their organisation by accessing aggregated and anonymised insights into the wellbeing of their people. Uber, Virgin Media, Sainsbury’s, Gymshark, and the NHS are some of the many organisations that have partnered with Unmind to create a world where mental health is universally understood, nurtured, and celebrated.

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