Mental health in the workplace: The role of ISO 45001 certification

In Australia, it’s estimated that 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

In the past 12 months one in five Australians (21 per cent) has taken time off work because of feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy.

An employee’s mental health can significantly impact their performance and level of productivity in the workplace. It can lead to higher rates of illness, absenteeism and accidents among employees, as well as an increase in staff turnover.

Heavy workloads, unrealistic deadlines, poor communication and uncertainty can all cause our mental wellbeing to suffer. In the last few years there has also been the added mental burden of riding the ups and downs a pandemic throws our way.

Even though about 90 per cent of employees think mental health is an important issue for businesses, only 50 per cent believe their workplace is mentally healthy. And on top of this, only 56% of employees believe their most senior leader values mental health.

A closer look at mental health in the workplace

When we think of occupational health and safety, physical safety from risks in the workplace is usually what comes to mind first. The implications of these hazards can be seen, which in many cases makes them easier to identify.

Take for example strains and sprains, falls, trips and slips, fractures, wounds and lacerations. We’re used to mitigating the risks that cause of these types of injuries, whether that’s with protection like hard hats, safety mechanisms on equipment, signage that brings attention to the risks, Hi-Vis work wear or all of the above.

But mental health conditions are often far less obvious. While an employee could be struggling, there could be little to no indication that something is wrong.

For many people psychological distress has also been further amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. During 2020 there was a rise in the use of mental health services after our day-to-day lives were flipped on their heads.

It’s important that organisations provide their staff with support and take steps to minimise the likelihood of causing or exacerbating mental health conditions in the workplace. These steps can contribute to higher staff satisfaction, less turnover, increased productivity and improved morale.

Common causes of poor mental health in the workplace

Every year 7,200 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions. This makes up around 6% of all workers’ compensation claims and equates to about $543 million in compensation.

Work-related stress or mental stress is behind the vast majority of these claims. Often this stress results from work pressure, work-related harassment, bullying, work-related fatigue and exposure to workplace or occupational violence.

Workplace bullying can happen in any type of workplace. It is when an employee experiences ongoing verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse while at work – and it is unfortunately relatively common in Australian workplaces.

Two-thirds of Australian employees experience workplace bullying, and Australia is home to some of the worst workplace bullying in the developed world.

But in a recent study from the University of South Australia researchers found that by treating bullying in the workplace as a health hazard, it can be minimised. This broadly involves management setting clear standards, building a respectful culture in the workplace and encouraging employees to report bullying. The only way this will be effective is if employees know who they can speak to regarding any issues and that if they come forward they will be taken seriously and supported.

Another common cause of poor mental health in Australian workplaces is work-related fatigue. This is when employees experience physical, mental or emotional exhaustion from ongoing fatigue. Easy tasks can become more challenging, and moods can be affected.

But how can you tell if an employee is fatigued? Some common signs include excessive yawning or falling asleep at work, short term memory problems, an inability to concentrate, behaviour changes like repeatedly arriving to work late and an increase in unplanned absences.

Lowering levels of work-related fatigue in your workplace can be done in various ways. Reducing the amount of physically and mentally demanding work, providing adequate breaks, avoiding being understaffed, developing a maximum working hours policy and implementing processes to check on workers and their wellbeing are all examples.

Mental health and ISO 45001 certification

Effectively managing the complexities of mental health in the workplace starts with – and really comes down to – having robust systems in place. A solid foundation makes it possible to:

  1. Proactively minimise risks;
  2. Identify issues as quickly as possible and give employees avenues to communicate;
  3. Ensure that when issues are raised, there is a suitable response;
  4. Appropriately support employees through poor mental health; and,
  5. Implement measures in the workplace to prevent similar issues from arising in the future.

This is where ISO 45001 certification can be incredibly beneficial. Evidence shows that an integrated approach to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace leads to the greatest benefits – and ISO 45001 compliance helps you implement just that.

ISO 45001 is the international standard for occupational health and safety, which provides a formal framework for minimising risks in the workplace. To achieve ISO 45001 compliance, organisations need to demonstrate that they are proactively taking preventative measures to protect employees, clients, customers and the general public from physical and mental harm.

This is done through mitigating risks where possible and setting up systematic systems for swiftly and effectively resolving problems if they do happen.

See our dedicated blog to find out how to build robust systems with ISO 45001 compliance.

ISO 45001 certification: Relevant clauses

When implementing ISO 45001 certification, there are a few key clauses where you will want to make sure to consider mental health.

Needs of workers (clause 4.2)

This clause requires that you identify mental health as a fundamental need of your employees and a key factor of occupational health and safety at your workforce. It is also when you would recognise the improvement of mental health as an overall goal of the system.

Hazard identification (clause 6.1.2.1)

At this stage you will need to look into whether mental health has been an ongoing issue at your company. For example you may look at whether employee turnover has been high or if there is a history of staff experiencing high levels of stress. It is also important to determine how you will go on to address these issues.

Occupational health and safety objectives and plans (clause 6.2)

It’s during this clause that you go back to your goals for improving mental health and develop a realistic, measurable and time-specific action plan. The plan will need to detail exactly how you intend to make changes, including resources, people involved and how progress will be reviewed.

Eliminating hazards (clause 8.1.2)

When you reach this clause, you will start to put controls in place to mitigate the previously identified mental health hazards. While it’s not always possible to fully eliminate certain mental health risks, there is the option to use administrative or engineering controls to help lower the risk. An example of this is implementing a job rotation – which is often used in professions like nursing – so that employees aren’t always in the same mentally taxing position.

Change management (clause 8.1.3)

Change and disruption can lead to employees feeling more stressed than usual. This clause makes sure organisations have strong change management systems in place that take into account and specify how they intend to support the mental health of employees impacted by changes.

Critical success factors for ISO 45001 certification

1. Commitment from senior organisational leaders and business owners

Those in leadership roles at your business are in the strongest position to drive real change and build a positive workplace culture. Acting as a role model through day-to-day behaviours, showing genuine belief in workplace mental health goals and making sure employees have access to necessary human, financial and other resources are all examples of how leaders can show their commitment.

2. Employee participation

Employees have first-hand experience of the mental health risks in your workplace. They see where the workplace succeeds and where improvements could be made. The best outcome relies on them having the opportunity to contribute to safe and open discussions.

3. Ongoing communication

Ongoing communication involves regularly checking in with employees and opening up the conversation around mental health, seeking out ongoing feedback from staff, ensuring all expectations are clear and making sure staff know that if they are struggling with mental health they can speak up and get support without fear of judgement.

Contact us about ISO 45001 certification

To find out more about mental health in the workplace and ISO 45001 certification, get in touch with our team of Australia-wide ISO 45001 consultants. We help businesses across a wide range of industries develop lean, low burden systems.

Our team also has experience with a range of other services including compliance softwareintegrated management systemsISO internal auditscompliance audits and ISO gap analysis.

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