Workplace mental health and wellbeing became a top priority for many organisations around the globe in the last couple of years. When the pandemic hit, we all started to notice the impact of isolation, losing someone or something dear to us (e.g. our dreams, plans, lifestyles, health), exposure to health risks and prolonged stress, that have been exacerbated by the unavoidable lack of clarity and certainty about what in the world is happening next. Ideally, workplaces became another avenue of support and care for people, providing social bonds and financial safety, meaning and purpose, and structure to our daily lives when life just shrank into the space of home.
Currently, we see people and countries moving away from COVID-19 mandates, and businesses starting to pick up. There’s need for the economy to heal itself and deal with the consequences of years of disruption. However, from our perspective at Umbrella, we know that the psychological impact of the pandemic is not over and will continue to contribute to health risks for many New Zealanders. Our mental health “epidemic” is a pre-existing invisible force that potentially affects the lives of thousands and thousands of people.
Workplaces play a significant role in how our population is going to overcome and heal from the pandemic. Organisations have a responsibility to care for the health and safety of their people, not only physical but mental as well. Creating healthy workplaces and strengthening people’s resilience is a complex process that includes managing risks of multiple hazards, as well as engaging with the innovation and problem-solving creativity of our people.
The first global standard on psychological health and safety at work – ISO 45003 – was introduced in 2021. The ISO 45003 provides guidelines for managing psychosocial risks at work. It is applicable to organisations of all sizes and sectors and provides a roadmap for the continual improvement and maintenance of healthy and safe workplaces. Along with its parent standard, ISO 45001, it helps organisations to figure out how to prevent work-related psychological and physical harm and promote wellbeing at work.
Psychosocial risk factors refer to environmental, relational and operational hazards at work that may affect people’s psychological and physical health. Examples of these factors are high workloads, tight deadlines, lack of control of the work or working methods (lack of autonomy), lack of role clarity, harassment and workplace conflicts.
To put it simply, psychosocial risk factors are those things that happen in our work lives that may cause us harm because they trigger our natural stress-response mechanisms. When not assessed, mitigated and managed properly, they cause our “fight, flight or freeze” response to be activated for prolonged periods of time, leading to a depletion of our resources. When the stress response is activated, our body is trying to save us from imminent danger and can suppress “less important” systems (immune, reproductive, digestive systems) and functions (all executive functions are on hold: ability to plan, make decisions, be creative, logical and see the big picture). Basically, you don’t need to calmly keep digesting your lunch if a tiger is about to eat you; you need to have the energy from the digestive system redeployed to get you running fast … Our heart speeds up, breathing often becomes shallow and we experience changes in the way we think, behave, socialise, and feel. But prolonged stress – about things that are not life-threatening but might “feel” that way, especially when a manager is snapping at us – wears out our body, impacts on relationships, productivity and increases risks of burnout and development of cardiovascular diseases.
Organisations are responsible for identifying and managing psychosocial risks in the workplace. This impacts on how people are managing their mental health and wellbeing—whether they are benefiting from the environment, social connection and meaningful work that are protective factors to their wellbeing or, instead, whether your workplace is consistently adding an extra level of stress to their lives.
The ways of identifying and managing psychosocial risks include:
- Assessing people’s wellbeing early and often. It allows you to identify what’s happening for your people behind closed doors, figure out what risks exist within different business groups and plan for more tailored and targeted interventions to support people—in a way that will truly help them.
- Assessing psychosocial risk factors through multiple communication channels (focus groups, surveys, interviews) early and often. It allows you to form a 360° understanding of what’s happening in your organisation on operational, social and cultural levels and what requires immediate attention. This will inform appropriate interventions to help promote wellbeing and prevent harm.
- Training and equipping people leaders with practical tools and actionable knowledge for managing mental health and wellbeing at work. That includes developing skills to manage challenging conversations and provide support.
- Developing a proactive and data-informed wellbeing strategy that takes a long-term view on enabling and supporting people. Depending on priority areas for action (informed by assessments), this strategy might involve taking steps to provide flexible working arrangements, more autonomy in how/when people do their work and more control over work methods, building a culture of support, respect and care with regular wellbeing check-ins, peer support and clarity around their roles.