National Labour Council approves collective agreement on job-related stress

In March 1999, the social partners on Belgium's National Labour Council approved a new intersectoral collective agreement on combating stress at work. The agreement integrates stress management into general company policies on the prevention of risks, and aims to tackle the issue on a collective rather than individual basis.

On 30 March 1999, the bipartite National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/National Arbeidsraad, CNT/NAR), bringing together representatives of trade unions and employers' organisations, approved a new intersectoral collective agreement on combating stress at work. The proposal follows up an intention expressed in the national intersectoral agreement for 1999-2000 signed in November 1998 (BE9811252F).

Main points of agreement

The new collective agreement (No. 72) integrates the battle against stress into the general health, safety and welfare policy of companies. This means that the workplace health and safety committee is viewed as a key institutional partner for the implementation of the agreement.

The agreement stipulates that the employer must monitor stress levels by means of questionnaires, standard measuring instruments and the stress risks related to the working environment. These stress risks are a function of job content, working conditions, the physical circumstances of the job and labour relations. Based on the assessment, the employer must take the appropriate measures to alleviate or prevent the risks.

The responsibility of the employer concerns only those stress-related issues that apply to the employees as a group. The collective agreement is based on an application to the workplace of the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of stress: "Stress is a situation which is defined as negative by the employees, which causes complaints or disfunctioning that can be physical, psychological or social, and which is caused by the fact that employees cannot meet the expectations and demands as formulated in the working environment. "

The responsibility of the company does not cover stress situations experienced by individual employees or stress factors related to their private life, daily commuting or other factors beyond the control of the company.

The employer is obliged to communicate and discuss the results of the report on stress risks with the employee representatives. This may take place through the works council, the workplace health and safety committee or the trade union delegation. Employers and employee representatives have to work out appropriate measures if required. Such measures may apply only to situations that are collective in nature, and are not to be designed for individual complaints and situations.

Finally, the agreement lays down that when measures are taken in favour of a specific group of employees, they should be consulted and informed. If they want, they may receive support from their union representative in the process. Moreover, in the light of the law on health, safety and welfare at work, the employer must inform new employees of working conditions related to the job. These include job content, work organisation, social contacts related to the job and lines of management accountability. Also included are possible stress factors. The employer also has to inform the employee of the action taken to prevent or alleviate possible risks. The law also stipulates that employees have the responsibility to contribute to stress prevention at work by taking responsibility for their own safety and well-being and that of others.

Stress at work?

The theme of stress at work is becoming an important issue in the literature on human resource management, indicating that increasing attention is being paid to the problem. Spontaneous strikes in recent years (for example, amongst car workers, air traffic controllers and caretakers in homes for the elderly) are the most spectacular and visible collective signs in Belgium of increased pressure at work. It is clear that work-related stress problems are usually expressed on an individual basis and with much hesitation: employees fear that their complaints will be interpreted as evidence of incompetence or inability to perform the job. This often means that units or teams may be experiencing a form of collective work-related stress but that they try to tackle it individually and treat it as an individual problem rather than as a work-related problem.

This paradox became apparent in the Second European survey of working conditions conducted by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in 1996: 28% of those surveyed across the EU, or the equivalent of about 1 million employees in the Belgian context, declared that they were subject to pressure and stress related to their job. Other research has come to the conclusion that about a half of absence due to illness, a third of long-term inability to work and a fifth of early retirements are related to stress at work. This amounts to an annual bill of about BEF 50 billion for the Belgian national social security system.

An increasing number of sectors, such as care, construction and education, have commissioned research into the quality of work and stress with a view to possible improvements. The Foundation for Technology in Flanders (Stichting Technologie Vlaanderen, STV) has done research in the field of education and has published an information brochure on stress at work . It clearly states that stress is related to objective factors present at work.

Work organisation as an explanatory factor

The fact that work organisation is an important factor in explaining work-related stress became very apparent after the recent STV study on pressure and stress in the education sector. A questionnaire survey of 440 schools and 12,529 teachers about their psychological well-being and psychosomatic complaints revealed that teachers on average have a higher number of complaints than other professions and often suffer from a combination of psychological and physical problems. Stress on the job turned out to be a very serious cause of illness and not at all an imaginary problem in the education sector.

The important point, however, is that the survey demonstrated that neither personal characteristics (such as gender or age) nor job-related characteristics (such as working in primary or secondary schools, or class size) were the most important factor in explaining stress. The most significant factor was the organisation of work in the school itself. The results could be summarised in one sentence: "reorganise your school and prevent stress". Important issues include: the degree to which teamwork is promoted; the degree of participation by teachers in school policy; the level of extra (non-teaching) tasks and their allocation and organisation; and the chances for professional training.

Stress prevention is an issue for the highest level of the organisation. This is the main theme in the STV brochure on work-related stress. Work organisation is the key variable in the work-related stress story. Reduction of tasks in short and repetitive cycles (through rotation and broader, more inclusive task profiles), participation of employees in planning and monitoring their work and the stimulation of problem-solving capacities of employees through appropriate and systematic work-related discussions are all integral parts of stress prevention. So-called "process re-engineering" can provide structural solutions for work stress. All this has to be combined with the reduction of irritating working conditions, improved ergonomics, additional opportunities for training aimed at improving social and problem-solving skills, and a prudent company policy on pay flexibility related to individual performance.

Commentary

Stress prevention requires an integrated company policy and is hence not just the responsibility of the industrial doctor or the person responsible for health and safety. It is a task for company management as a whole and for all the parties concerned. Work-related stress may have a useful function as a warning signal within a company. Just as the canary down the coal mines once warned of a lack of oxygen, so work stress serves as a signal of problems in the organisation of work.

Belgium's new national collective agreement on combating stress provides the social partners with an institutional framework to react with alertness to the situation. One can only hope that all those involved will make good use of the opportunities available to tackle a problem which, according to recent research, is much more widespread than usually admitted. (Peter Van der Hallen, Steunpunt WAV)

References: Gejaagd door het werk, Arbeid en stress in veranderende bedrijven, F Janssens, STV, 1997; ("Teachers and stress. The school makes the difference", S Steyaert, in Nieuwsbrief Steunpunt WAV, 4/98; Stress en werk, oorsprong en aanpak, S Moors et al, NOVA.

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