Psychosocial risk: transformation barrier or opportunity?

Just when organisations thought transformation was hard enough, a new official standard requires firms to assess the impact change could have on their staff’s mental wellbeing. So is this a help or a hindrance?


If ever there was a need for transformation it is now. Business models are broken, markets have melted away, many organisations stand on the brink. McKinsey has dubbed 2021: the year of transition. But it feels like a tough ask. Individuals’ capacity for yet more change appears to be at an all-time low.

If things are not easy now, they could soon get even harder. Arriving this summer is a new set of guidelines bosses will have to get their heads around in the form of ISO 45003. For the first time, this new subset of previously broader health and safety measures introduces the concept of psychosocial risk. 

This is the anticipated psychological impact that staff could face from the very way work is organised for them, from the design of people’s jobs to the workloads they have or the stress it puts people under. 

But given transformation involves routines being uprooted, it is leaving business leaders  with concerns about whether firms can really both protect employees’ psychological wellbeing and do what is needed to survive.

“The whole point of transformation is that it is deliberately about breaking from the norm,” argues Carsten Linz, author of Radical Business Model Transformation. “This necessarily creates huge psychological strain.” 

Lynne Hardman, chief executive of organisational change consultancy Working Transitions, adds: “It’s hard for transformation to occur without discomfort or without stretching people beyond their comfort zones. Firms can’t transform without their people being put under some sort of stress.” 

So is this a transformation barrier too far? “Transformation is an event, but it’s also a very individual process that everyone goes through differently,” says Hardman. “I do have sympathy with the view of the British Psychological Society that managers could soon be forced into becoming psychologists to gauge each and everyone’s potential psychological impact of a change process.

“This is so personal too. As we all know, what is seen as pressure by some is excitement for others. Also the elements that impact mental wellness aren’t just job-related, but are much broader.” 

However, psychological injury is finally being taken seriously and must be fully understood during the transformation process. Dr Rebecca Holt, clinical psychologist at Working Mindset, says: “Fundamentally, if people don’t feel psychologically safe, transformation fails anyway. It’s how businesses manage concerns and vulnerabilities about transformation that matter and, if ISO 45003 builds this into transformation, it has to be a good thing.” 

“Simple frameworks for having these sorts of conversations shouldn’t be such a stretch for leaders,” she says.

Having to assess job functions or skill changes in terms of psychological harm is a radical departure from the harder view that says those who can’t cope with transformation should just be left to exit the business of their own accord and leave things to those who can. 

But Emma Robertson, chief executive of Engine Transformation, which helps the likes of E.ON, Santander, P&O, eBay and Tesco with their transformations, argues that transformations should be linked, and dialled back if necessary, to employees’ assessed propensity to successfully deal with it.

“The view that people should ‘fit in’ with change needs to be flipped around to being how the organisation can change with and around their people. Transformation goes wrong when people are told they have to change, but they’re not equipped for it,” she says.

“Many leaders certainly lack an ability to take their people on transformation journeys,” James Herbert, chief executive of business transformation consultancy Foundry4, concedes. “Pain typically happens when business aspirations don’t take into account current mindsets.

“So if change can be couched from a mental health point of view a bit more, there are positives to be had. What really stresses people out is a feeling of the loss of control that transformation brings. 

“When you think about it, it’s entirely sensible to scope out how roles might change and what allowances people should get during a transformation process.”

So are we all going to start seeing more widespread talk of psychosocial risk? Maybe not overnight, but mental health is undoubtedly on the boardroom table and here to say. 

According to the British Standards Institution, any new company wanting ISO 45001 accreditation, the current standard for more general health and safety management, will now have to prove they have systems in place to mitigate psychological ill-health caused by the way they organise work. 

And at one organisation, luxury retirement village provider Audley Group, group health and safety manager Ian Maxwell already has his eye on it. “In the context of occupational health and wellbeing, transitioning to ISO 45003 will be about encompassing and taking account of psychological health and mental health. I do feel it forces companies to take a new stance on wellbeing and take a more integrated approach,” he says. 

Like many, though, Maxwell does worry that psychosocial health is new territory in terms of organisational change. He says assessing for psychosocial risk “will require specialist or additional professional help”. But what does seem clear is, if this is the first time the phrase “psychological risk” has been heard by many business leaders, it won’t be the last.

“ISO 45003 will no doubt land in organisations with a rolling of the eyes, even within human resources departments,” says Stuart Duff, head of development at workplace psychology consultancy at Pearn Kandola. “Most legislation that supports employees’ health and wellbeing receives the same response: more bureaucracy. But right now, we all need to take more time to understand the mental health of employees and how individuals manage pressure.”

Herbert at Foundry4 concludes: “Managers aren’t psychologists, but by the same token business transformation requires people to come on the journey too. If the standard helps bring about focus on how change impacts people, and their ability to transform with the business, it can’t be a bad thing.”