Crystal ball gazing is always a difficult sport, but at the beginning of 2019 the view is clouded by the “B word”. With the uncertainties and ramifications laid out in every news bulletin, it’s impossible to predict what shape Brexit might take, or to extrapolate implications for health and safety.

Except, of course, that Brexit is having a braking effect on other aspects of the UK’s legislative agenda. Whether it’s the regime change needed to fully implement the Hackitt Review, or the civil service capacity to respond to the dearth of occupational health provision, or the HSE having to draw up extensive contingency plans on chemical regulation under a no-deal Brexit, the issue of our times is undoubtedly sucking staff resources, time and energy away from other agendas.

Brexit uncertainty will also be affecting business planning cycles at many organisations. However, according to IT consultancy Verdantix, above-inflation levels of investment are being found for new health and safety management software to help boost compliance – and organisations’ reputational capital, particularly as voluntary reporting initiatives are gaining ground.

Perhaps the underlying economic uncertainty has also dulled businesses’ appetite for accruing management standards accreditations: uptake of the ISO 45001 on health and safety has been “below predictions”. A better economic outlook, and the security that comes with it, might encourage more registrations, although it’s likely that a spurt will only be seen closer to the March 2021 deadline for migration from BS OHSAS 18001.

However, in the context of Brexit, organisations might want to think about ISO 45001 as a form of passport. “Besides the normal business benefits, this is a globally accepted standard. In this era of shifting trading blocks and barriers, it will provide the passport to transcend national boundaries,” says consultant Chris Ward, who helped to draft the standard and now audits to it.

“As the economy inches forward, working lives become longer and technology marches ahead, health and safety can expect to be at heart of them”

Growing use of “disruptive” technology is an inescapable theme for 2019. As we increasingly adopt devices such as the Alexa and Google Assistant at home, the possibilities offered by interactive devices, machine learning and real-time “algorithmic management” fall within reach.

While the overall effect of technology adoption is likely to be positive boosts to productivity, creativity and job opportunities, concerns about the impact on both workers and the resilience of our regulatory framework are beginning to be heard. A report by EU-OSHA argued that new psychosocial and organisational hazards will need better definitions of liabilities and responsibilities, while IOSH has suggested that a code of ethics on the use of robots and artificial intelligence will be needed to ensure that work places remain people-centred.

Of course, mental health, stress and psychosocial risk at work will be a continuing theme. Levels of reported stress, depression and anxiety have been tracking upwards for the past decade; the coming year, likely to be bring more uncertainty and continued “austerity”, is unlikely to buck the trend.

What could change, however, is organisations’ reactions and sense of responsibility. To date, the narrative around mental health has been that it is an individual issue, requiring responses targeted at individuals: from “yogurt and yoga” to telephone counselling to mental health first aid provision.

In 2019, the narrative is expected to broaden, with more awareness of the organisational and social factors that put so many of us at risk. “Responses need to be built into the fabric of the way you do business, it’s not just about buying a commercial product,” says psychologist Dr Joanna Wilde, who sits on the HSE’s Workplace Health Expert Committee.

The coming year will bring interesting times and interesting debates. As the economy inches forward, working lives become longer and technology marches ahead, health and safety can expect to be at heart of them.