ISO45003: Driving Forward Workplace Wellbeing and Challenging Misconceptions

Recently I had a really interesting discussion with a consultancy colleague.  The focus of our discussion was ISO45003 and its roll in driving forward workplace wellbeing, a particularly key theme for the work we are both undertaking.  My colleague was confused as to the relationship between ISO45003 and ISO45001 and had been told by a number of other parties that it was not possible to achieve certification to ISO45003 without having it for ISO45001.  He was concerned by this, and so was I!

There are 2 misconceptions here.  Firstly, it is absolutely clear that the two standards can be used entirely independently.  Yes, it will be easier to implement ISO45003 if you’ve already got a system in place which meets the requirements of ISO45001 because you will have the structure in mind (but let’s not forget the structure is the same for all the management standards so you could say ‘we’ve got ISO9001/14001/22301’ and know the structure just as well).  For me one of the key benefits is that If you have achieved ISO45001 you will have identified who your ‘workers’ are and that will help but it is absolutely NOT a requisite to achieve ISO45001 before you can move on to ISO45003.  We will come back to ‘workers’ in due course.  You will also be used to complying with the requirement for participation and consultation and be using that to drive forward improvements – and participation and consultation are absolutely key if your ISO45003 system is to work.

The second misconception is that ISO45003 can be ‘certificated’ in the same way as our other management systems.  It can’t.  Just like ISO19011, which provides guidelines for audit, it is not a ‘requirements for’ standard, it provides ‘guidance’ and whilst certificating bodies may well be prepared to offer a certificate for achieving compliance it’s not the same as the certificate issued for any of the other management system standards.  That doesn’t, I re-assured my colleague, make it any less valuable!  Certificates are about 3rd party assessments being undertaken and acknowledging that you’ve made the grade, your systems are fit for purpose, and that you are delivering against them.   They are the outward proof of your achievement – something to shout about within and outside your organisation.

So what does ISO45003 do?  It provides an incredibly strong framework for organisations to use to drive forward their thinking on psychosocial health and wellbeing in the workplace.  It prompts thinking. It encourages a holistic approach. It’s about moving from ‘well meaning to well being’ as my colleague so eloquently put it.  It’s about recognising that simply appointing and training a Mental Health at Work First Aider actually doesn’t tick a box saying ‘we’ve sorted mental health at work’ although there are many organisations who believe this to be the case.  

The Journey!

It’s about considering your workers, the environment they operate in and the impact that a wide range of things can have on their psychosocial health and then putting measures in place to control and reduce the impact.  So why the use of the term ‘worker’ and what is it’s significance?  ISO45001 introduced the term and it’s been a game changer.  It broadens out responsibility from purely employees to all those people who interact with the organisation and help to deliver its activities. 

ISO45001 defines a worker as a ‘person performing work or work related activities that are under the control of the organisation’.  It brings into play the agency joiner who is working on the building site alongside the employees of the construction company, the intern who’s on a gap year from Uni, the zero hours contract folk who are called in to work at a care home at short notice.  In short if the organisation is controlling the activity then the people involved are covered by the system.  This is where both 45001 and 45003 really start to have an impact, and to start to drive forward really important and positive changes in the way we approach occupational health and safety.

Occupational health and safety isn’t just about incidents and accidents and the impact they have, and ISO45003 drives forward thinking on one very particular aspect of workplace health and safety – that of wellbeing.  We live in a world where the pressures which workers face on a day to day (hour to hour) basis can really impact on their mental health and well being, and these factors are often compounded by ‘stuff’ outside of work such as the current cost of living crisis.  Imagine facing up to rising mortgage costs, rising fuel bills, supermarket shops becoming ever more expensive, and at the same time knowing that the organisation you work for is facing a take-over and job security is a real worry.  This is the reality for many today.

The Reality of Modern Life

I remember my father coming home from work each day, he’d done his day’s work and at the end of the working day his time was his own.   There were no emails into the evening or over the weekend.  There were no mobile phone calls to deal with outside the working day.  Work was 8.30 to 5.00 Monday to Friday.  Outside those hours he was ‘free to be’.  How many of us can say that today?   We live in a world where the technological advantages brought about by email, mobile phones, video conferencing offer great benefits but increase the pressure on us. 

‘Can you make that call at 7am/7pm/at the weekend’ starts off as a one off ‘exception’ and before you know it there becomes an expectation that this is ok and then it becomes the norm.  But how does it affect those involved?  Some may be ok with it initially but not longer term.  Some may struggle right from the outset.  It’s so easy for things to be introduced ‘with the best of reasons’ causing the worst of impacts.

ISO45003 asks organisations to consider 3 elements (work organisation, social factors at work and work environment) and provides some really useful pointers for organisations to consider for each of them. 

The 3 Elements 

There is no expectation that all elements will apply in the same way to all organisations, or to the same level throughout an organisation but the power of the standard comes from asking us to think ‘could this apply here’ and to then encourage us to identify how we can ascertain the impact and how we can control it.  This is where participation and consultation is so important – it is all to easy to dismiss something as ‘not relevant here, only to discover that when you talk to workers it’s extremely relevant to some, perhaps only a few, but that relevance is there.

Having identified what aspects may or do apply and to whom (and remember that within an organisation some elements may apply to one group but not to another) the standard then asks us to consider how we can ‘control’ those aspects.  If you’ve worked with ISO45001 you will be used to identifying risks and many of are used to using tools such as the 5 x 5 calculation of risk x likelihood to establish the scale of risk, and then recalculating after you have put controls in place to identify the scale of the ‘mitigated risk’.  Experienced safety practitioners may well bring into play the Hierarchy of Controls (see Figure 1) at this point – can you eliminate the issue causing potential for harm, can it be done in a different way etc? 

Hierarchy of Controls

Of course nothing stays the same and with this standard being based around Deming’s PDCA cycle we need to review how effective our systems and controls are and change them to bring about improvement.  We also need to factor in that new issues may have come to light which we need to include in our work – if ISO45003 had been around when Covid landed that would have been a very good example of being dynamic and keeping the system up to date!


So, there you have it.  A standard which draws on the approach taken by ISO45001 but which draws the focus firmly on to psychosocial health and wellbeing.  Is it time for you to pick it up and see what a difference it could make to your organisation?  There are some significant benefits which can be achieved, including a reduction in turnover of staff, reduced absence due to stress, reduced liability claims, increased interest in joining the organisation from recruits, a more positive and focussed workforce to name just a few. 

Clever organisations are recognising that this is a standard which brings a lot of benefits, is it time for you to take a look?