Mental health matters

How a new standard for managing psychological health in the workplace is helping to transform the education sector.

Few minutes to read
Clare  Naden
By Clare Naden
Published on

Many jobs have an element of stress at the best of times, but the current pandemic stretched many workers to their limits. The latest standard by ISO’s occupational health and safety committee couldn’t have been more timely. Published earlier this year, ISO 45003 aims to assist organizations of all kinds and all sectors to put in place good practice for managing employee psychological health and well-being.

Education is just one of those sectors. Being at the front line of the pandemic, with billions of classes going online overnight, the lives and stress levels of students and teachers alike were certainly challenged. Student stress has been well documented, but the staff at these educational institutions were right there at the forefront too.

Recognizing the potential benefits of ISO 45003, many learning establishments worldwide are implementing the standard. While it’s too early to see the full effect, there are signs it is causing some ripples of change – for the better. We talk to some academics about workplace stress in academia, the impact of the pandemic and how this new standard is a cause for hope.

Education has a higher prevalence of psychosocial hazards.

Pressure on education 

When the pandemic struck in early 2020, most educational establishments around the world had something like a week to close their doors and put their entire programme online. Since then, unpredictability has been the only constant for students and teachers alike. Unsurprisingly, numerous studies have demonstrated its profound impact on the mental health of school and university staff, both during lockdown periods and when returning to the classroom. Concerns about how to effectively deliver courses online, and the pressure that comes with knowing they held the future of many young people in their hands, predictably led to increases in anxiety, depression and stress symptoms for many.

A teacher gives an online class at Politecnico di Milano on March 05, 2020 in Milan, Italy.

A professor gives an online class at the Polytechnic University of Milan, Italy, in 2020.

Even before the pandemic, there is evidence that many academic staff were suffering from work-related stress, with mental health issues and burnout being a significant problem. The pandemic, says Aditya Jain, a member of ISO’s committee for occupational health and safety and Associate Professor in Human Resource Management at the Nottingham University Business School, just amplified what was already a challenging task.

“Compared to other sectors, education has a higher prevalence of psychosocial hazards. Teachers and professors are exposed to people all the time, and the jobs are often underpaid with a lack of resources. But perhaps the most wearying of all is the sense of responsibility that teachers feel for the impact that education has on young people’s lives.” All of this is compounded by management issues, he adds, with many manager roles filled by those ill-equipped for the task, or faced with political interference, and the pressure just continues to build.

Overworked teacher is sitting by her desk.

Even before the pandemic, many working in academia were struggling with poor mental health. Heavy workloads, lack of recognition and pressure to succeed in what is a narrowly defined measure of success all take their toll. Then came the pandemic, which increased workloads and threw their work/life balance out of whack, coupled with the same stresses and anxieties related to health and uncertainty that everyone was faced with.

Burnout exploded. A US study conducted last October by The Chronicle of Higher Education and financial services firm Fidelity Investments in Boston, Massachusetts, found that almost 70 % of respondents said they felt stressed in 2020, up from 32 % in 2019, and that many more felt tired and angry.

Prevention is key 

Prof. Stavroula Leka, Emeritus Professor of Work and Health Policy at the University of Nottingham, says that while most educational institutions were not blind to the effect of the pandemic on employees, supports that were put in place were mostly reactive, such as help lines and employee assistance programmes.

“There were staff surveys on the impact of the pandemic, indicating increased work-related stress and ongoing workload issues,” she says. “The pandemic unfortunately showed that a preventive approach is still lacking to manage psychosocial risks at work and promote a healthy workplace.”

However, there are also many guidelines that exist to help educational institutions manage this issue and provide support for employees to build their resilience to stress, adds Jain. “Being resilient isn’t enough,” he says. “No matter how tough a person is, push them hard enough and they will break down. It is time to change the focus and take measures to prevent such high levels of stress in the first place.”

Many educational institutes, he says, have the best intentions but feel helpless faced with the nature of the job and the resources they have to contend with. “Yet there is a lot they can do, even with limited resources.” Which is the premise of ISO 45003, the world’s first International Standard to address psychological health and well-being in the workplace. The guidance builds on the valuable resources that already exist and takes them further to provide a more effective, accessible and holistic approach.

“Even where good guidance exists, it is not always seen by or accessible to those that need it most,” he says. “What’s more, there isn’t really anything that truly brings together all of the elements of both prevention and adaptation to stresses that can impact psychological health at work. ISO 45003 was developed to fill that gap.”

Making change that lasts

ISO 45003 can support any kind of organization in implementing such a systematic, preventive approach in order to manage psychosocial risks and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace, says Prof. Leka. “For the most part, the approach stipulated in ISO 45003 is actually a legal requirement in most countries, but the problem is that, in an area like this, abiding by the law doesn’t mean having a tailored, heartfelt manner in which it is applied. The standard goes beyond the minimum requirements of law into much more detail, with the intention of really helping organizations make a valuable difference.”

This includes examples of interventions and evaluations of these. “It also allows organizations to benchmark their practices against International Standards and ensure that they remain agile in dealing with changes in the work environment that can affect physical and psychological health and well-being,” she says.

While it is too early to accurately measure the impact of the standard on the profession, with such institutional changes taking time to take effect, the shift in mindset has undoubtedly already begun. “Twenty years ago, an employer would say that mental health in the workplace is an individual issue and not their concern,” says Jain, “but times have changed since then. The silence has long been broken and the evidence is clear. But that doesn’t always mean the solutions are simple and the problem has gone away. With a change in mindset and much-awaited tangible tools such as ISO 45003, there is a lot of hope that real change is on the horizon.”

Change that lasts for many lifetimes to come, because the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly not over, and even when it is, there will undoubtedly be other national or global challenges for academics to face. But with the opportunity that this new standard offers, the storms might be just that bit easier to weather, both for them and the futures of our young generation that they hold in their hands.

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