Success of stress agreement is ‘uneven’

The social partners’ cross-sector agreement on stress at work, initiated in 2004 at EU level, has had a positive effect, a report has shown. Although the implementation of the agreement has been uneven across the EU, it has led to new policy developments in 12 Member States. The report, issued on 24 February 2011, looks at how the agreement has been enacted, its results and the lessons learnt, including the importance of joint action between social partners.

Background

On 24 February 2001, the European Commission’s issued an evaluation report (529Kb PDF) of the EU-level social partner framework agreement (77Kb PDF) on work-related stress. The agreement, an autonomous one, was concluded in October 2004 under Articles 154–155 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU, 450Kb PDF).

Implementation

The agreement has been implemented in EU Member States by several means, including national collective agreements, agreements on recommendations, guidance, and the development of practical tools or surveys.

The report shows how the agreement was implemented in different Member States.

  • A bipartite or tripartite social dialogue on work-related stress was held in all countries.
  • Social dialogue and policy development was triggered or accelerated in 11 Member States (Czech Republic, Cyprus, France, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) and in Norway, where work-related stress had mostly been an issue for experts in the field until the framework agreement was created.
  • Practical guidance on how to deal with work-related stress was disseminated in many Member States. The agreement boosted efforts to raise awareness and agree on guidance, even in countries where work-related stress was already accepted as a problem.
  • The number of countries with a legal framework that explicitly addresses psychosocial risks and/or stress has now risen to 14, after seven Member States (Belgium, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal and Slovakia) amended their laws.
  • Five countries, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Romania, have implemented the agreement with binding national collective agreements.

A set of principles and rules is now enshrined in most Member States, either through legislation or through binding collective agreements, and in others the social partners have concluded voluntary agreements, or joint guidelines with a substantial joint effort to promote awareness-raising and follow-up.

Nevertheless, the Commission states that the implementation of the agreement is uneven across the EU and that there are some shortcomings. For example, the social partners in Cyprus, Malta, Poland and Slovenia have not reported any follow-up to their general declarations about the implementation of the agreement. In 12 Member States – Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – the social partners do not seem to have fully used the potential of the agreement for improving awareness and understanding of work-related stress or the proposed solutions. It also found that, in some Member States, not all provisions of the agreement have been implemented, and highlights the fact that the social partners in Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, and Malta have not reported on the implementation of the agreement at all.

Challenges and lessons learnt

The report sets out the main challenges arising from implementing this agreement. These include:

  • implementation difficulties in the newer EU Member States, where the issue goes beyond the traditional competencies of the social partners;
  • low trade union density, which can make implementation and coverage difficult;
  • a lack of authority of EU-affiliated national bodies (which are often themselves not involved in bargaining) over the bargaining activities of their sectoral and organisational members;
  • challenges related to the topic of work-related stress, including a definition of stress and the interaction of work-related and non-work-related stress;
  • the sensitivity of the topic and a lack of public awareness;
  • the importance of joint action between the social partners;
  • the important role of the public authorities in areas such as enforcing legal obligations and advising and guiding companies.

Lessons learnt included the fact that the social partners in many countries were able to build partly on the experience of implementing the social partners’ 2002 telework agreement. It notes that, with few exceptions, the implementation instruments for work-related stress and telework are similar, despite the different nature of the agreements. The agreement has been taken as a starting point for a related social dialogue in five sectors at EU level: education, central government administration, private security, construction and electricity.

Commentary

This is clearly an important agreement and the report provides valuable information on how EU-level social partner agreements are being implemented across very different countries and traditions. The Commission concludes that the agreement has:

…certainly contributed to raising awareness, promoting a set of principles and rules and building consensus within the EU about the structural nature of work-related stress, and the need for concerted responses to it.

It also acknowledges that different effects were to be expected, given Member States’ different starting positions, industrial relations systems and occupational health and safety practices.

However, the Commission believes that there is room for improvement, both at national and EU level, in areas such as extending protection, and developing adequate responses to the challenge of work-related stress. It 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 therefore all stakeholders need to consider further initiatives to ensure that this goal is achieved.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

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