Social partners sign work-related stress agreement

In October 2004, the EU-level central social partners signed a framework agreement on work-related stress. The agreement, which will be implemented in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to individual countries rather than by an EU Directive, aims to establish a framework within which employers and employee representatives can work together to prevent, identify and combat stress at work.

The EU-level cross-industry social partners formally signed a framework agreement on work-related stress on 8 October 2004. The signatories were: for trade unions, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff (EUROCADRES)/European Confederation of Executives and Managerial Staff (CEC) liaison committee; and for employers the Union of Industrial and Employers’ Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (UEAPME) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP).

This accord has been signed in the context of the social partners’ current 2003-5 work programme (EU0212206F), in which they made a commitment to hold a seminar on work-related stress in 2003, with a view to concluding a voluntary agreement. The executive bodies of ETUC, UNICE/UEAPME and CEEP authorised the opening of negotiations in the spring of 2003 and the talks began on 18 September 2003. An agreement was concluded eight months later and formally signed on 8 October 2004.

Content of the agreement

The framework agreement notes that stress can potentially affect any workplace and any worker, regardless of the size of the company, field of activity or form of employment contract or relationship. If stress at work is tackled, efficiency and occupational health and safety can be improved, resulting in 'economic and social benefits for companies, workers and society as a whole'.

The aim of the accord is to increase awareness and understanding of work-related stress amongst employers, workers and their representatives and draw their attention to signals that could indicate that workers are suffering from stress. The agreement does not seek to attach blame, but aims to provide a framework to enable both employers and workers to identify, prevent and manage stress at work. The accord does not cover violence, harassment and post-traumatic stress, as these issues will be dealt with in separate negotiations.

Definition of work-related stress

The agreement defines work-related stress as 'a state which is accompanied by physical, psychological or social complaints or dysfunctions and which results from individuals feeling unable to bridge a gap with the requirements or expectations placed on them'. It can be caused by factors such as work content, work organisation, work environment and poor communication. The accord states that individuals have varying tolerance levels for stress and may react differently at different times of their lives - for some, short-term exposure to pressure can be a positive thing. The social partners emphasise that stress is not a disease, but that prolonged exposure to it may reduce effectiveness and cause ill health.

Identifying work-related stress

The accord gives a non-exhaustive list of potential stress indicators, including high absence from work, high staff turnover, frequent interpersonal conflicts or complaints by workers. A number of factors should be analysed during the identification of stress. These include:

  • work organisation, including working time arrangements, degree of autonomy, the match between a worker’s skills and the requirements of their job, and workload;
  • working conditions and environment, including exposure to abusive behaviour, noise, heat and dangerous substances;
  • communication issues, such as whether there is uncertainty about what is expected from someone at work, a worker’s employment prospects, or details of forthcoming changes; and
  • subjective factors, such as emotional and social pressures, feelings of being unable to cope and perceived lack of support.

Once work-related stress has been identified, the employer must take action to prevent, eliminate or reduce it, with the participation and collaboration of workers and/or their representatives.

Responsibilities of employers and workers

The agreement states that employers have an obligation under the 1989 framework health and safety Directive (89/391/EEC) to protect the occupational health and safety of their workers, and that this extends to stress at work if this entails a risk to health and safety. Workers have a general duty to comply with measures put into place by employers to protect their health and safety at work.

Preventing, eliminating or reducing work-related stress

The accord sets out a range of measures that employers could use to tackle the issue of work-related stress, either individual or collective, or both. Employers may want to use specific targeted measures, or they may want to put into place an integrated stress policy containing both preventative and responsive measures. It is suggested that, where necessary, external expertise should be called upon, in accordance with EU and national legislation, collective agreements and practices. The text sets out examples of measures to combat stress:

  • management and communication measures, including clarification of company objectives and the role of individual workers, ensuring adequate management support for individuals and teams, matching responsibility and control over work, improving work organisation and processes and enhancing working conditions and the working environment;
  • training managers and workers to raise awareness and understanding of stress, its possible causes and how to deal with it, or how to adapt to change; and
  • the provision of information and consultation of workers and their representatives, in accordance with the range of EU Directives, national legislation, collective agreements and practices on this issue.

Implementation and follow up

Article 139 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC) gives the signatory parties to an EU-level agreement two implementation options: in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour in individual countries; or by requesting a Council of Ministers decision. The signatory parties to the stress agreement want it to be implemented in accordance with procedures and practices in individual countries (the same route they chose for their 2002 agreement on telework- EU0207204F) rather than by Council decision and give a deadline of three years for implementation (8 October 2007).

The member organisations of the signatory parties will be obliged to report to the EU-level Social Dialogue Committee on the implementation of the accord. The Social Dialogue Committee will, during the three years that follow the signature of the agreement, prepare an annual table summarising its implementation and prepare a full report during the fourth year following signature.

Any questions on the content of the agreement can be referred jointly or separately by member organisations to the signatory parties, which will reply either jointly or separately. Unnecessary burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises should be avoided when implementing the agreement. The accord also states that its implementation does not constitute valid grounds to reduce the general level of protection afforded to workers in the areas covered by the agreement.

Any time after five years from signature, the signatory parties will, if one of them requests this, evaluate and review the agreement. The accord does not prejudice the right of the social partners to conclude, at the appropriate level, agreements adapting or complementing this agreement.

Commentary

The signatory parties issued a joint statement on the day the workplace-stress agreement was formally signed, welcoming the deal: 'Stress is a concern for both employers and workers. Approximately 28% of European Union workers report work-related stress each year. The agreement we signed today aims at addressing these problems in order to improve well-being of workers and increase companies’ efficiency.'

Although it will not be implemented by a Directive (as in the case of the earlier EU-level cross-industry accords on parental leave, part-time work and fixed-term work), the new agreement will provide a framework within which employers can work together with employees and their representatives to prevent, identify and combat stress at work (TN0111109S). It would seem that implementation via the procedures and practices of individual Member States is the right approach to take, given that the management of stress at work is an issue that requires different treatment and handling, depending on the specific needs of individual organisations and their workforces. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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