EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Health and well-being at work

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'A safe working environment is a key factor in competitiveness and it can help meet the EU's targets for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. It plays a key role in ensuring a sustainable long working life for healthy and skilled workers.' László Andor, former Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion 

Maintaining health and well-being should be high-priority for workers and employers alike. Health is an asset closely associated with a person’s quality of life and longevity, as well as their ability to work. A healthy economy depends on a healthy workforce; organisations lose productivity through ill-health of their workers.

The health, safety and well-being of workers are a priority for EU policy. The EU, through Directive 89/391/EEC on measures to improve the safety and health of workers, places an explicit responsibility on the employer to adapt work to the individual, while the Europe 2020 strategy seeks to ensure that all people – including those with different health capacities – can engage in paid work.

Health and well-being in the workplace is a broader issue than exposure to risks, accidents and occupational diseases; it is the outcome of a multitude of settings and conditions. Organisations and workers need a range of resources to ensure health and well-being in the workplace; how work is organised and the organisational culture are also important. Physical risks, being the most visible, originally received the most attention; however, psychosocial risks are receiving increasing prominence as a workplace health hazard.

EurWORK explores health and well-being in the workplace in the broadest sense: it examines the physical, mental and social well-being of workers (including illness and disability) and how work and the way it is organised can contribute to this. Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), which has been monitoring quality of work and employment since 1991, complements the work of the observatory.

Read: Eurofound (2016) - Sustainable work throughout the life course: National policies and strategies
European countries face the challenges of ageing populations supported by shrinking workforces, more precarious types of employment, and in many cases, a decreasing number of jobs in the wake of the economic crisis. As a result, the issue of how to enable more people to participate in the labour market and to continue to do so until an older age has become a key policy issue in all EU Member States.

 

Read: Sustainable work over the life course: Concept paper

Ageing of the population is likely to threaten the ability of states to finance welfare states and social protection systems in the future. A viable solution is to increase employment rates and to lengthen working life. To achieve this dual goal requires devising new solutions for working conditions and career paths that help workers to retain their physical and mental health, motivation and productivity over an extended working life. In other words, work must be made sustainable over the life course. Identifying and analysing the factors and actions underpinning sustainable work throughout working life is a research priority for Eurofound in the 2013–2016 programming period.

Read also:

Health and well-being at work
The health and well-being of individuals are two dimensions around which researchers and policymakers are re-arranging the debate on how to foster the progress of societies. Health and well-being have an intrinsic value, which should be part of the very definition of progress, and also a societal one because of their direct connection with issues such as labour force participation, productivity and sustainability. The aim of this report is to contribute to this debate, building on Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS), a valuable source of information on the topic since the early 1990s.

 

Foundation Focus – Work and health: a difficult relationship?

This issue of Foundation Focus looks at the relationship between work and health, using first findings from Eurofound’s fifth European Working Conditions Survey which was launched on 16 and 17 November 2010 under the Belgian EU presidency. With the additional support of the European Commission, the two-day conference brought together high-level policymakers and decision makers in the field to discuss the future of working conditions across Europe.

 

Physical and psychosocial risks

Workers can be exposed to a range of physical risks, including:

  • tiring and painful positions;
  • repetitive hand or arm movements;
  • carrying heavy loads;
  • breathing in smoke, dust or vapour;
  • noise and vibrations. 

Psychosocial risks are related to how work is designed, organised and managed, and to the economic and social context of work. Key psychosocial risks include the following:

Read: Joint Eurofound, EU OSHA report - Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention

Acknowledging the complexity of the relationship between health and work, the report presents comparative information on the prevalence of psychosocial risks among workers and examines the associations between these risks and health and well-being. It also looks at the extent to which establishments take action to tackle psychosocial risks and describes interventions that can be adopted in companies.

 

See also: Industrial relations practices related to psychosocial constraints at work in the steel sector

Psychosocial risks: Health and well-being at work - Q3 2014 (EurWORK topical update)

Work-related health outcomes

Exposure to risk at work can have a direct impact on health, but the effect is difficult to measure. It varies depending on individual worker characteristics. In addition, a person’s health is affected by both their work and non-work activities, and by other factors such as access to healthcare.

One-quarter of workers responding to the fifth EWCS reported that work affects their health negatively, while two-thirds saw no relationship between their work and their health. The most common health problem reported was musculoskeletal disorders, such as backache and muscular pains in shoulders, neck or upper limbs. An increasing number of researchers agree that musculoskeletal disorders resulting from strenuous working conditions are on the decline, while those related to stress and work overload are becoming more common.

Read: Managing musculoskeletal disorders

Absenteeism and presenteeism

Absenteism, or absence from work is generally the result of poor health. It is prevalent: one out of seven managers responding to the third European Company Survey reported high levels of sick leave in their establishment. Absenteeism has a substantial impact on the economy – the cost was estimated to be about 2.5% of GDP in 2010. Hence, Member States are taking steps to address it, ranging from controlling the costs to promoting well-being. Presenteeism – attending work while ill – is also an issue: the fifth EWCS found that almost 4 out of 10 workers reported having worked when they were sick.  

Read: Absence from work

Work-related stress

Risk factors for work-related stress include:

  • heavy workload;
  • long working hours;
  • lack of control and autonomy at work;
  • poor relationships with colleagues;
  • inadequate support at work;
  • organisational change.

While difficult to address, risk factors can be reduced by innovations that do not necessarily require funding. Effective stress management in the workplace requires good quality data on work-related stress, robust stress policies, the involvement of all relevant actors, good communication, and the commitment of management.

Read: Work-related stress

Violence and harassment at work

Violence and harassment in the workplace are becoming increasingly significant issues in the EU public arena. Experience of violence in the workplace (whether physical or psychological) is linked to increased absence, higher staff turnover rates and reduced productivity. Women are most often subjected to intimidation and psychological abuse, while men are more frequently exposed to physical violence. Sexual harassment at work, particularly against women, is commonplace in all Member States but often goes unreported for fear of being ostracised or losing one’s job.

Read: Violence and harassment in European workplaces: Extent, impacts and policies

Violence and harassment are attacks on personal dignity, the right to equal and non-discriminatory treatment and often a person’s health. Workers affected by it feel insecure about their work; they are more frequently absent and may even be unable to work, with consequent impacts on productivity and corporate and public costs. Some national-level surveys point to a long-standing increase in reported violence and harassment. Certain European countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, have more coordinated, established policies on preventing and tackling violence and harassment. Awareness of the topic at the national level, its inclusion in legislation and the degree of the social partners’ involvement in policies and interventions all contribute to the effectiveness of policies to address it.

 

Read: Foundation Findings: Physical and psychological violence at the workplace

Violence at work can manifest itself in many ways. The variety of negative behaviour covered under the general umbrella term of workplace violence is so large and diverse that it makes it difficult to adopt a unified and integrated approach dealing with all the forms of workplace violence. Foundation Findings provide pertinent background information and policy pointers for all actors and interested parties engaged in the current European debate on the future of social policy. The contents are based on Eurofound research and reflect its autonomous and tripartite structure.

Workplace health promotion

Workplace health promotion involves creating a working environment that safeguards the health of employees. It includes provision of information on health and safety, organising work so that it does not damage health, and encouraging employee participation in these endeavours.

Workers are better informed about health and safety risks in the workplace than ever before. However, small and medium-sized enterprises face particular challenges, having a disproportionate injury and fatality rate. Eurofound has conducted research looking at how to tackle this issue.

Another workplace health issue researched by Eurofound is the use of alcohol or drugs at work and measures taken by Member States to combat it. The subject deserves attention because it may have negative impacts, such as health problems, absenteeism, reduced performance and work accidents.

Read: Social Dialogue in micro and small companies

Micro and small companies constitute the backbone of private business in Europe, accounting for nearly 99% of all enterprises, more than half of total employment in the private sector and an even greater proportion of new jobs. Despite their crucial place in the economy, there has been little research on micro and small companies, particularly in terms of the implementation of fundamental workers’ rights – such as health and safety at work – and the positive role of social dialogue in striving for good working conditions and industrial relations. Given this knowledge gap, Eurofound undertook a research project aimed at investigating industrial relations and social dialogue in micro and small companies.