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New ISO stress guide is the last thing we need

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The International Organization for Standardization's new draft stress guide gives unions cause for concern

A new guide on stress is being prepared by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and, judging from the first draft, unions have a lot to worry about.

The proposal is for guidelines on "Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace". It is not a proposed standard, although there is a good possibility that ISO will try to produce a standard in the future. As with all ISO publications, it is not openly available, so you cannot read it yourself. However, I have seen a copy and it certainly rang a lot of warning bells for me.

It is unclear what the guidance is trying to deal with. Is it psychological risk or psychosocial? The draft uses both terms throughout but, at present, there is no definition given. A look at a dictionary suggests that psychosocial is both the psychological factors and the surrounding social and work environment, so if it is about workplace stress I would hope that the guide is about “psychosocial” risk.

The biggest problem is the fact that it seems to think that the whole process of dealing with the risks is something that management can do on their own. All it wants from the workers is a “commitment”. There is a section on “leadership and worker participation” that never even mentions worker participation – or consultation, worker representatives, or any kind of involvement in the process. The only reference to “workers and their representatives” is in later sections on evaluation and improvement, which is a bit late in the process.

Also, workers seem to be more of the problem than the solution. Among the hazards it lists are “human error” and “capabilities”. There is a whole section on “competence” that says that workers have to “have the necessary competence to reduce the potential for injury and illness due to exposure to psychosocial risks”. This is implying workers have to be able to reduce their own risks, rather than it being the responsibility of management. Total nonsense. The draft guidance is opening the door to initiatives such as resilience training, rather than putting the responsibility on management to have the competency to remove and manage risk.

Anyone reading the guidance is not going to have a clue about how to manage stress. It does not even mention “risk assessment” until the section on reviewing the system.

The question is how did they come up with such a mess? Well, it looks like they have used the structure that ISO insists that all standards are based on. This is despite the draft clearly stating that this is not a standard. They have then taken parts from the new international standard on health and safety (ISO45001) but dropped a lot of other parts, such as on worker involvement. As a result, it is a confusing mess that is certainly not “guidance” that any employer could use.

If it is so useless, we have to ask is why are ISO doing it. There is already “Guidance on the management of psychosocial risks in the workplace” (PAS1010) which was produced 7 years ago and which takes a similar approach to the HSE Stress Management Standards. Also, employers and unions have consistently made it clear that they do not want ISO developing standards in areas that are best agreed between employers and unions, or through regulation. If there were to be guidance or even a standard on stress, the place to agree that would be at the International Labour Organisation.

The TUC highlighted the problems with the process of standard-making when ISO decided to develop certifiable standard on occupational safety and health management a few years ago. The unions and employers opposed it, but it was pushed through by consultants who want to be able to sell their services to employers. This is no different. The draft guide is not meeting any real need, yet it will continue to be developed by national standards committees run mainly by consultants and no doubt, in a few years, they will try to transform the guide into a certifiable standard.

Unions know how to manage stress. What we need is risk assessment and management of the risk with clear regulation and enforcement to ensure that employers comply.

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