EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Stress at work


In October 2004, the European social partners signed a Framework agreement on work-related stress as an autonomous agreement. The objective of the agreement is to provide employers and workers with a framework to identify and prevent or manage problems of work-related stress. Stress is defined 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.…Stress is not a disease but prolonged exposure to it may reduce effectiveness at work and may cause ill-health.

Work-related stress has been recognised as one of the main sources of work-related health problems. In the communication on the Community strategy on health and safety at work 2002-2006, the European Commission adopted a global approach to well-being at work, taking account of changes in the world of work and the emergence of new risks, particularly psychosocial ones.

The European Commission began to consult the European social partners on work-related stress in 2002. As there have been no legal provisions specifically aiming at work-related stress, action at Community level was seen as necessary to ensure a minimum level of protection for workers against work-related stress. In the consultation of the social partners on stress and its effects on health and safety at work, the European Commission refers to an estimated cost of at least 20 billion euro each year, based on 1999 figures for the European countries. A first interim assessment took place at the meeting of the Social Dialogue Committee on 28 June 2006.

The European social partners ETUC-UNICE-CEEP/UEAPME (UNICE is now BusinessEurope) took up negotiations on a framework agreement in response to European Commission’s consultation. The framework agreement on work-related stress has to be implemented autonomously by the European social partners and their affiliated organisations in accordance with the national procedures and practices specific to management and labour.

The agreement is based on the recognition that work-related stress can be caused by various factors such as work content, work organisation, work environment or poor communication. The objective of the agreement is to provide employers and workers with a framework to identify and prevent or manage problems of work-related stress. The agreement gives guidance as regards measures to prevent, eliminate or reduce problems of work-related stress.

In the case that a problem with work-related stress is identified or action must be taken to prevent, eliminate or reduce stress, the responsibility for determining the appropriate measures rests with the employer. Workers have a general duty to comply with measures determined by the employer. The framework agreement is due to be implemented within three years. It entails a clause on the monitoring of the implementation of the agreement and providing of annual interim reports in the first three years and a full report in the fourth year.

After four years, the European Social Partners adopted a joint report on the implementation of the Agreement, published on 15 December 2008. The report is based on joint national reports from member organisations in 21 EU Member States, Iceland and Norway. The Commission published a report on the implementation of the European agreement in February 2011 (EU1102051I). This report gives an overview of activities that have been carried out to implement the agreement. The implementation instruments can be grouped into roughly four categories: national collective agreements; general agreements or recommendations and guidelines for rank-and-file members; declarations; or legislation. However, the report stressed that there were substantial joint social partner implementation efforts in only 11 Member States plus Iceland and Norway. Moderate or unilateral efforts were observed in seven Member states. Limited initiatives, or a total lack of initiatives, were observed in 10 other Member States. The report concludes that implementation of the agreement has not yet ensured a minimum degree of effective protection for workers from work-related stress throughout the EU and that all stakeholders need to consider further initiatives to ensure that this goal is achieved.

The social partners are also dealing with the issue of stress at sectoral level. In January 2006, the social partners in the construction sector adopted a joint recommendation on the prevention of occupational stress. In November 2007, the social partners in the electricity sector (Eurelectric-EPSU/EMCEF) adopted a joint declaration on stress inviting their members to reinforce the follow-up of the 2004 inter-professional agreement on stress. Further, in June 2008, the social partners in private security agreed a joint declaration on work-related stress. Most recently, the social partners in the telecommunications sector signed a joint declaration on good practice guidelines to improve the mental wellbeing of workers within the sector. In addition, a number of world-wide companies, such as Allianz, Danone (EU1110031I) and PPR, have refered to the European agreement in company-level agreements or charters on stress at work.

Recent data from the 2010 European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) seems to indicate a slight long-term increase in the occurrence of factors that can lead to work-related stress. For example, the share of workers who report that they work to tight deadlines at least a quarter of their working time rose from 50% in 1991 to over 60% in 2010. The picture is almost identical for those who work at high speed. In addition, 18 % of workers are not satisfied with their work-life balance. In contrast, room for manoeuvre (work speed, method, and order of tasks) and reported social support have not been increasing. According to the Labour Force Survey ad hoc module on occupational health and safety 2007, 23% of the workers reported exposure to time pressures or overload of work that would harm their health.

Regarding emotional demands, client contact is a source of pleasure and gratification, but in certain circumstances it may turn into a difficult pressure. Client contact (almost) all of the time increased has slightly, to 44% within the last 10 years. 5% deal with an angry client most of their working time, 30% of workers are required to hide their emotions, 18% report that a mistake in their work could cause physical injury and 35 % that it could cause financial loss for their company. While social support remains high in general at 85%, 11% report having been subjected to verbal abuse at work in the last month. 5% also report threats and humiliating behaviour. Violence (2%) and harassment at work (4%) are rare but serious events at the workplace.

See also: health and safety; overtime; risk assessment; working time; working conditions; framework agreements; working environment; autonomous agreement.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.


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