Austria: Companies fail to take measures to preserve mental health

Although Austria amended its health and safety laws in 2013 to try to combat the increasing number of psychosocial health risks at work, a survey by the Austrian Chamber of Labour has shown that only a minority of Austrian employers are meeting compulsory obligations to identify, reduce or eliminate such risks.

Background

Companies have been obliged to identify psychosocial health risks at work and to reduce or eliminate them since an amendment to the Health and Safety at Work Act (in German) (ArbeitnehmerInnenschutzgesetz) in 2013. The whole process is referred to as ‘workplace evaluation’. The amendment specifies the entire process, which entails:

  • setting up a steering group;
  • preparing an action plan (working out the steps to be taken, the participants, and a timetable for this);
  • identifying and assessing psychosocial health risks;
  • deciding what is to be done (including how to implement measures and evaluate effects);
  • documenting the identified health risks and the implemented measures.

Structural Change Barometer

The Austrian Chamber of Labour (AK) commissioned a periodic, online survey of a panel of works councils on their views on structural change, called the Structural Change Barometer (in German, 1.2 MB PDF). The results of the last wave of the survey, which included questions specifically referring to the progress of the compulsory workplace evaluation on psychosocial risks, attracted attention in the Austrian media.

The survey is intended to add an employee perspective to the general use of management surveys on the consequences of structural change focusing on working conditions, employment structures and wages. It has been set up as a response to the fact that data on dynamic structural change are generally focused on management surveys.

Methodology

The survey covers works councils in important Austrian companies and is conducted by the Institute for Empirical Social Studies (IFES). It consists of 31 different indicators, such as stress at work, the number of agency workers in a company, its outsourcing processes and involvement of works councils. These aspects are integrated into five overall categories:

  • working conditions and working environment;
  • employment structure;
  • structure of the company;
  • company strategy;
  • co-determination.

The results of the latest survey are based on the views of the chairs and vice chairs of a sample of 245 works councils in Austria’s most important companies. Nearly half of the respondents (46%) work in companies with more than 200 employees, 28% work in companies with 100–199 employees, and 13% work in companies with 50–99 and also in those with fewer than 50 employees.

The composition of the sample reflects the fact that the survey is restricted to companies with a works council, which are commoner in larger companies. An interesting aspect of the sample is that 71% of the companies are part of a larger corporate group and that 50% have their headquarters outside Austria.

Key findings

Results from the current survey (in German) show that only a fifth (21%) of the participating companies had finished their obligatory risk assessment on psychosocial health risks. A third (33%) of the works councils stated that, in their company, only part of the assessment had been conducted, and a quarter of the companies (24%) were still planning the evaluation. In 11% of the companies it had neither been conducted nor planned, and another 11% stated that they did not know what stage the process had reached.

The survey results indicate that the size of the company does have an impact on the outcome. The number of companies where the evaluation has neither been conducted nor planned is three times above average in companies with fewer than 50 employees (32%). In companies with 50–99 employees this quota is 13%; in those with 100–199 employees it amounts to only 7% and nearly the same is true for companies with more than 200 employees (8%). Another interesting feature is that companies that are part of a larger corporate group also show a much smaller share in this respect (8%) than individual companies (19%). With regard to the former, companies with their headquarters located in Austria (27%) are more likely to have (27%) already finished the risk assessment than those with their headquarters located outside Austria (19%).

The survey also asked for details of the measures and the provisions taken to avoid the identified risks. This question included only those companies where at least part of the workplace evaluation had been conducted. The answers show that only half of these companies (49%) had initiated or implemented measures, while 39% had not, and 12% said they knew nothing about the implementation of such measures. Again, company size has an impact on the outcome. The larger the company, the higher the percentage of companies with measures already implemented: 52% of those with more than 200 employees, 50% of those with 100–199 employees, but only 38% of those with 50–99 employees and 29% of those with fewer than 50 employees.

When the working conditions of those companies that had already implemented measures were compared with those of all the companies surveyed, the measures appeared to have had positive effects. Some 65% of the works councils in the whole sample said working under time pressure had increased during the last six months, compared with only 55% of those in companies which have implemented measures. Again, when asked about demands for more flexibility, 60% of all companies said they had experienced increased demands, compared with 49% in those where measures have been introduced. Furthermore, 40% of all works councils indicated that the working atmosphere had worsened during the past six months in their company, compared with only 28% of those in companies that have already implemented measures. 

Commentary

The survey sample is not representative of all Austrian companies due to an overrepresentation of companies with established works councils. However, the results show that two years after the law obliged companies to evaluate psychosocial health risks at work, only a quarter of all employers had complied. It appears to be likely that the situation is no better in companies without a works council. 

The differences in results, in terms of company size, may arise from the fact that larger companies tend to have better and more organised human resource management structures.

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