Health and well-being at work - Q1 2014 (EurWORK topical update)

18 februari 2015


Social partners launch initiatives on psychosocial risks

In the first quarter of 2014, the European social partners in the transport sector published recommendations and guidelines for preventing psychosocial risks. In late January 2014, the social partners in the maritime transport sectRead more

Social partners launch initiatives on psychosocial risks

In the first quarter of 2014, the European social partners in the transport sector published recommendations and guidelines for preventing psychosocial risks. In late January 2014, the social partners in the maritime transport sector – the European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) – jointly published a training manual as well as guidelines concerning harassment and bullying at the workplace. On 11 March 2014, the European social partners in the railway sector – the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) and, again, the ETF – adopted joint recommendations for identifying and preventing psychosocial risks in their industry. The signatories are looking to achieve a ‘cooperative corporate culture’ in the framework of ‘an overall risk assessment process founded if possible on a ‘joint approach’. 

Violence and harassment in the health and care sector

Violence and harassment it is not very widespread in European workplaces, according to a number of surveys published in the EU in the first quarter of 2014. For example, in Poland, some 1% of employees across all sectors indicated they faced the threat of violence, while 0.8% cited the threat of harassment or intimidation as a workplace risk factor. In Norway, the extent of bullying and harassment life seems to have been relatively stable for the past 10 years, with around 2% of the working population being exposed. In 2009, about 2% experienced bullying by their immediate superior; bullying seems to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the various groups. Meanwhile, 3.4% report that they are exposed to unwanted sexual attention once a month or more.

However, there are sectors in which the incidence of violence and harassment is much greater: for example, the health and care sectors, with health care workers, nurses and physiotherapists being particularly vulnerable. In the UK and the Czech Republic, survey findings show high levels of reported violence and harassment in the health sector. In the UK, a National Health Service (NHS) staff survey published in February shows that 15% of NHS staff overall said they had experienced physical violence from patients, patients’ relatives or other members of the public in the previous 12 months. This figure was particularly high among ambulance staff (33%) and mental health staff (19%).  Meanwhile, 29% of NHS staff said they had experienced bullying, harassment and abuse. It was also found that only 64% of incidents of physical violence and 43% of bullying, harassment and abuse were officially reported.

In the Czech Republic, physicians reported high levels of burnout, which in many cases is a consequence of harassment. The Czech Medical Chamber (ČLK), in collaboration with the First Faculty of Medicine of the Charles University in Prague, conducted a survey of almost 15,000 Czech physicians on the subject of burnout. The results suggest that burnout affects one-third of Czech physicians.

Changing landscape of health and well-being outcomes

Official statistics in the EU reveal changes in health outcomes, disease and accidents that suggest a relationship with the economic crisis. 

In Spain, levels of occupational disease decreased by 22% between 2006 and 2013.

In France, the number of occupational accidents in competitive sectors fell between 2005 and 2010, partly due to the economic crisis.

Other countries, such as Germany and Poland, also report a reduction in the number of accidents, although this may not be related to the economic crisis. However, this positive trend is paralleled by undesirable outcomes in relation to mental health.

In Greece, the economic crisis, massive layoffs and the high unemployment rate has resulted in an increase in anxiety attacks. As shown in a recent survey by Regus, economic instability has magnified the pressure felt by Greek workers, with 72 % stating that recession and job loss has resulted in diseases directly associated with stress. Some 41 % of the interviewees said that their sleep had suffered in recent years due to the anxiety over retaining their jobs.

Moving away from the economic crisis, reports from Norway and Sweden indicate a relationship between psychosocial risks and mental health. Meanwhile, in Germany in 2012 a high percentage (42%) of new awards of pensions for reduced earning capacity pension were related to psychological ill-health. Over the last decade in Germany, there has been a steep rise in the diagnosis of depression, personality and behavioral disorders, and addiction. However, according to the German Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists (BPtK), such disorders cannot be attributed to working conditions alone.

Demands for regulations on psychosocial risks

A greater awareness of psychosocial problems at the workplace seems to be leading to demands for more regulations. In France, a study by Technologia, a firm specialising in psychosocial risks, calls for the designation of three new occupational diseases:

  • burnout;
  • repeated stress leading to trauma;
  • generalised anxiety disorder.

In the absence of a specific designation, these mental health problems can only be recognised if they result in a permanent disability for at least 25% of the time. However, according to the weekly magazine L'Usine Nouvelle, employers are reluctant to recognise them.

In Sweden, the magazine Kollega reported in March that the Swedish Work Environment Authority was exploring a change in the Swedish Environmental Working Act regarding psychosocial risk factors. The Work Environment Authority was investigating whether employer responsibility for the psychosocial work environment should be legally binding. However, employer organisations do not want a binding law in this area, citing the difficulty of measuring what constitutes a good psychosocial working environment .

Finally, in Germany, debates have taken place on regulations regarding psychosocial risks. In 2013, employers cooperated with the unions and the Federal Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) to reduce psychological strains and protect employees’ health.  In autumn 2013, the Confederation of Germany Employers’ Associations (BDA), the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) and BMAS adopted a joint declaration on psychological health at the workplace. In 2014, the topic of work-related psychosocial stress received further attention from the social partners. On 28 January 2014, the DGB called on the federal government to introduce rules to reduce stress at the workplace. On 18 February 2014, it was reported that the German Metalworkers’ Union (IG Metall) has even proposed specific rules for work-related emails and text messages. To protect employees from the stress of being always contactable, IG Metall calls for such electronic communications to be banned after working hours.

About this article

This article is based mainly on contributions from Eurofound’s network of national correspondents. Further resources on health and well-being at work can be obtained from Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) and European Company Survey (ECS).

For further information, contact Oscar Vargas:

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    Health and well-being at work - Q1 2014 (EurWORK topical update)

    This article presents some of the key developments and research findings on health and well-being in workplaces in the EU during the first quarter of 2014. Physical and psychosocial risk factors, work-related health and well-being outcomes, violence and harassment at work and occupational health and safety are the main focus of this report.

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