Last reviewed 8 July 2021

Mike Sopp takes a look at the new standard and finds it full of useful detail.

The British Standards Institution (BSI) has just published BS ISO 45003:2021 Occupational Health and Safety Management. Psychological Health and Safety at Work. Guidelines for Managing Psychosocial Risks. On its release, the BSI stated that “psychological ill-health is the costliest area of occupational health and safety, yet few organisations actually have any in-house expertise in this area”.

Indeed, figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression as being significantly higher than in previous years.

Combined with research evidence suggesting wellbeing programmes in the workplace are not being effectively implemented, the need to manage psychological risks effectively in the workplace is clearly a matter that cannot be ignored.

Although designed to work alongside ISO 45001:2018 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems. Requirements with Guidance for Use, ISO 45003 is a guidance standard, not a requirements standard like ISO 45001. This means that ISO 45003 cannot be “accredited” to your organisation. BSI is, however, offering unaccredited certification to ISO 45003.

What are psychosocial risks?

Psychosocial factors are things that can make people happy or miserable. In the workplace these are a mix of work conditions and social interactions The risks associated with psychosocial factors relate to the fact that misery and stress can affect workers’ mental and physical health.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, psychosocial risk factors “are things that may affect workers’ psychological response to their work and workplace conditions (including working relationships with supervisors and colleagues”.

Examples of psychosocial risks at work include excessive workloads or unrealistic deadlines, lack of control over work, job insecurity, discrimination, violence, lack of social support and unfair pay.

The need for BS ISO 45003

According to the European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA), with the right approach, psychosocial risks and work-related stress can be prevented and successfully managed in the same logical and systematic way as other workplace safety and health risks.

Organisations such as the HSE have produced guidance, eg its Management Standards, that organisations can use to manage psychosocial risks.

However, figures from the Labour Force Survey for 2019/20 show a significant increase in incidence of work-related stress, anxiety and depression. Interestingly, it concluded that Covid issues are not the cause of this increase.

In addition, research by the British Safety Council and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development indicates that only 50% of organisations have a wellbeing programme and that, even where such a programme exists, very few actually evaluate the impact of the programme.

According to the CIPD, “organisations need to put in place a systematic framework, with tools to assess the main physical and psychological risks to people’s health, so that they can target their activity where it’s needed”.

BS ISO 45003 could provide such a framework for organisations as it provides “guidelines for managing psychosocial risk within an occupational health and safety management system”. 

Context and leadership

BS ISO 45003 defines psychosocial risks as the “combination of the likelihood of occurrence of exposure to work-related hazard(s) of a psychosocial nature and the severity of injury and ill health that can be caused by these hazards”.

According to the BSI, “this new standard is a tool that anyone can use to prioritise the people in their organisation. It helps identify where psychosocial risks arise and how they can be mitigated or eliminated”, and can help “develop expertise, increase people’s trust and manage risk better”.

The Introduction is used to highlight the issue of psychosocial risks and elements that contribute to these, along with the impacts on individuals and organisations.

It also highlights the benefits that good risk management can bring, such as improved worker engagement, enhanced productivity, increased innovation and organisational sustainability.

Perhaps most importantly, it highlights the need to manage psychosocial risks “in a manner consistent with other occupational health and safety risks, through an occupational health and safety management system, and integrated into the organisation’s broader business processes”.

In doing so, the standard requires the issue to be contextualised, taking account of internal/external issues along with the needs of stakeholders. Of interest, this clause (4) recommends that organisations should:

  • adjust the design of activities to manage psychosocial risk to suit the specific context of the workplace

  • tailor activities to improve the focus, reliability and validity of the process to manage psychosocial risk

  • determine how the assessment of psychosocial risks will be used to make effective action plans.

Clause 5 of the standard relates to leadership and the framework required to manage psychosocial risks in terms of policy development, roles and responsibilities, and worker participation. The framework will be familiar to those who use other ISO management system standards.

However, it places emphasis on worker participation and in particular recommends that the organisation:

  • provide opportunities for feedback by workers to help the organisation determine the effectiveness of the management of psychosocial risks

  • encourage participation and engagement, eg by establishing a committee or forum to focus on psychosocial risks.

Hazards and risks

Clause 6 and Clause 7 provide recommendations to:

  • identify psychosocial hazards in the workplace

  • assess associated risks and opportunities

  • develop objectives

  • identify the resources required to meet those objectives

  • determine the competence, communication and awareness required to manage the risks.

The standard provides a useful and comprehensive list of hazard factors grouped under

  • how work is organised

  • social factors at work

  • work environment, equipment and tasks.

Those that apply can be identified through:

  • analysis of work tasks, locations and schedules

  • consultation with workers

  • performance evaluation, worker surveys, focus groups, etc

  • review of relevant documentation.

From this, the psychosocial risks (and opportunities) can be assessed. In doing so BS ISO 45003 recommends that the organisation takes into account “the diversity of the workforce and the needs of particular groups”. This means risk control measures can be targeted rather applied unnecessarily across the organisation.

Competence, communication and awareness

Competence, communication and awareness are all key elements in the framework. Certainly, research suggests these elements are often under-appreciated when implementing wellbeing programmes.

Recommendations include:

  • developing competency to identify psychosocial hazards and to manage risks including completion of risk assessments and implementation of risk control measures

  • making workers aware of the factors that can affect wellbeing and how psychosocial risks can be reduced.

Risk control and monitoring

The risk assessment process should take into account any existing controls, which should be reviewed and analysed to determine if improvements are required.

The standard makes reference to the principle of primary, secondary and tertiary interventions, which will be familiar to those who apply the HSE Stress Management Standards.

A number of interventions are then detailed based upon the three areas used to identify hazards noted above (ie work, social and environment/equipment/task). Many of these risk control measures will be familiar as they reflect those detailed in HSE guidance for managing stress.

Interestingly, there is a recommendation under this Clause for organisations to “enable workers to identify signs of exposure to psychological risks”. It then provides a useful list of examples including changes in behaviour and increased absenteeism.

As part of the overall risk control process, the standard recommends that organisations “design and implement appropriate rehabilitation and return-to-work programmes”.

As noted above, many organisations do not monitor the effectiveness of wellbeing programmes. As a formal management standard, performance evaluation and management review procedures are a key factor in the management cycle.

In particular, a management review should “ensure that top management remains informed on psychosocial risk performance on a regular basis and the extent to which the organisation has met its policy and objectives for the management of psychosocial risks”.


Many organisations have been relying on wellbeing programmes to address psychosocial risks at work but evidence suggests that this approach is not reducing the overall burden of psychosocial impacts in the workplace.

A formal management system approach could provide a robust framework within which an organisation can take a more systematic approach to managing psychosocial risks.

Further information