Belgium: New legislation on preventing psychosocial risks

Belgium has a strong record when it comes to regulations relating to the well-being of employees in the workplace. Recently, steps have been taken to tighten up the rules when it comes to issues around psychosocial risks to workers, but employers fear changes have gone too far.

Background

Since the passing of the law on the well-being of employees at their workplace in 1996, there has been a raising of awareness in Belgium of psychosocial risks to workers. Such risks are increasingly being seen as an inherent part of the general notion of well-being at work together with occupational safety, occupational hygiene and ergonomics.

In 2002, a further bill was passed to combat 'undesirable behaviour' in the workplace – a generic term for bullying, harassment (including sexual harassment) and violence at work.

In 2007, both laws were updated  and merged into a new law. This new legal step was the result of a series of discussions involving the Belgian parliament and social partners – in practice, trade union representatives. A major objective was to emphasise that psychosocial strain at work was to be considered one of the many possible outcomes of undesirable behaviour in the workplace. It was also emphasised that any in-company policy regarding undesirable behaviour should be based on formal risk assessments, taking into account the nature and the extent of possible stress in the workplace.

On the basis of another set of discussions within the Social Affairs Commission of the federal Parliament, two more bills were passed and one royal decree, all three in the course of 2014. These successive modifications of the regulatory framework mean that employers as well as health and safety committees at companies need to pay considerably more attention to psychosocial risks at shop-floor level than used to be the case.

Existing regulatory framework to prevent psychosocial strain

Psychosocial risks in the workplace need to be assessed using a general risk analysis covering all aspects of occupational well-being. It is hoped this umbrella risk assessment will lead to the definition of long-term targets (to be established over a time span of five years), which will in turn lead to a number of interventions established by means of consecutive annual action plans.

There is help available for those dealing with psychosocial issues. Support is available to organisations from so-called 'prevention advisors' who specialise in psychosocial problems. Most of these professionals are available to work in external prevention services in Belgian businesses, even in the smallest companies. Only a limited number of organisations have their own in-house specialists.

Prevention advisors are called in where a case of undesirable behaviour is suspected in the workplace. They can be assisted by what are known as confidential mediators, appointed by employers from members of staff. These are people employees can turn to if they feel they have become a victim of bullying, sexual harassment or violence.

In Belgium, the term 'well-being at work' is usually referred to when an issue of 'bullying, sexual harassment or violence at work' is raised – the three specific aspects generally accepted as contributing to psychosocial risks. Rules state that, during a period of six months after a complaint of a psychosocial nature is made, the employee who makes the complaint cannot be made redundant.

Modifications to the framework in 2014

In September 2014, modifications were made to the regulations governing prevention advisers and confidential mediators for psychosocial risks to try to ensure their independence from the employer and in-company trade union representatives. Employers are now obliged to nominate one or more confidential mediators if a unanimous demand is made by trade union representatives and the health and safety committee. The new rules also state that mediators have to attend five days of training.

The legislative modifications issued in 2014 describe in detail how complaints and requests on behalf of one or more workers must be tackled. In all organisations, an in-company procedure has to be put in place to ensure the prevention advisors and the confidential mediators play a central role. Requests for a psychosocial intervention can be informal or formal, and can be made by an individual or on a collective basis. In all cases, it is the prevention advisor on psychosocial issues who has to conduct an investigation and come up with written proposals for preventive and corrective measures.

The anonymity of the employee or employees involved in the complaint should be guaranteed as far as possible.

The responsibilities of health and safety committees increased with the 2014 regulations. In Belgium, all organisations with more than 50 employees must have a health and safety committee (see Annex for more details).

Commentary

The regulations relating to the prevention of psychosocial strain are set out in great detail, in line with the long-standing Belgian tradition of precise regulation of health and safety issues.

These new modifications were introduced mainly following trade union demands. Employer organisations were opposed to the new rules. They were particularly against the 'strong formalism in the new procedures'. Although they stress their support for initiatives to help companies develop a preventive policy with respect to stress at work, they were unhappy with the 'formalistic nature of the new legal dispositions'. They also pointed out that this was just one of a number of modifications of the existing regulatory framework within a relatively short period of time.

Annex: Additional responsibilities for health and safety committees introduced in September 2014

1. The health and safety committee should be informed and consulted by the employer on the following issues:

a. Psychosocial risks in general.

The committee shall be:

  • informed of the results of the risk assessment of situations that could lead to psychosocial risks;
  • informed of the results of the (annual) evaluation of the measures to prevent psychosocial risks;
  • consulted on the collective preventative measures delivered on the issue.

b. Analyses of psychosocial risk occurring in specific work situations.

The committee shall be:

  • informed of the results of these analyses;
  • consulted on the possible collective measures delivered on the issue.

c. The consequences of formal requests of a collective nature.

The committee shall:

  • be informed of the situation (anonymously);
  • be consulted on the way the request will be attended to;
  • receive the results of the corresponding risk assessment (when available – to be treated anonymously);
  • be consulted on the consequences that were given to the request;
  • be informed by the employer on their decision to follow up the request.

d. The consequences of formal requests of an individual nature.

The committee shall:

  • receive at least once a year a list of all proposals for collective measures brought forward by the prevention advisor for psychosocial aspects.

2. Other prerogatives

  • The employer is obliged to carry out a formal risk assessment in a specific work unit when at least one-third of the trade union representatives within the health and safety committee demand it.
  • The committee must agree on the procedures that allow workers to directly contact the prevention advisor for psychosocial aspects and the confidential mediator.
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