Belgium: Snapshot of research findings on psychosocial risks at work

Psychosocial risks for workers have become a major issue in Belgium. A high priority for public authorities last year was to develop and improve policies to tackle work-related stress and particularly worker burnout. Many studies into such problems have also been conducted. This article gives an overview of these studies and of the legal background to more recent developments.

Legal context

In Belgium, the issue of safety and health at work is regulated by the Law of 4 August 1996 on workers’ welfare which creates a framework for the code on well-being at work. It requires every employer to have a management policy covering well-being and to set up a health and safety committee if the enterprise employs 50 or more workers.

In 2002, the legislation was amended to address problems of violence, bullying and harassment at work.

In 2014, measures promoting health and safety at work were widened to cover psychosocial risks and to reinforce existing regulations, previously restricted to violence and moral or sexual harassment at work. These new measures are more explicit about the way employers have to tackle psychosocial risks and limit the consequences of such risks. Specifically, employers must carry out risk analyses, make their employees aware of risks and organise an early warning system to prevent burnout among workers.

This law also defines the roles of the main actors involved in preventing psychosocial risks. These actors include the employer, the committee for prevention and protection at work, confidential mediators, counsellors and prevention advisers.

Research findings

With these recent legal developments, the issue of psychosocial risks has attracted wider attention in Belgium and prompted much research on their effect on both workers and the work they do. Some research, such as a study by work safety specialists Mensura, analysed the application of the law on well-being at work in the construction sector, and said its effects were positive. However, employers' knowledge of legislation on psychosocial risks and what they are obliged to do to remove such risk is not as good as it should be, and the study concludes that improvement in this area is still needed.

One reason for the great interest in work-related psychosocial risk in Belgium is the cost to the social security system. According to figures from the National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance (INAMI/RIZIV), psychological disorders are the leading cause of disability for workers in Belgium. Currently 93,000 workers or former workers are categorised as disabled by a psychological disorder, a 70% increase since 2005.

Several specialist human resources consulting companies have conducted studies that are designed to raise awareness among employers about psychosocial risk and the need to make its management and prevention a fundamental part of company policy. 

For instance, a survey conducted by consultancy company SDWorx shows that 28.2% of the 2,500 workers it questioned are affected by very high levels of stress (in French), and this has resulted in sickness leave in 15.4% of cases. The study emphasises that stress is related to:

  • quality of the working conditions;
  • job content;
  • social relations;
  • perceived organisational support;
  • organisational culture.

Another study, conducted by human capital company Securex, shows that 95% of employees believe they share responsibility in the fight against burnout. Since the 2014 law requiring employers to take preventive measures was enacted, the study shows short-term measures against burnout are taken by over 80% of large companies and nearly 60% of small businesses. To do this, companies typically focus on the analysis of psychosocial risks and the reintegration of long-term absentees. These types of measures can be effective; organisations that first started using them in 2012 record fewer cases of staff burnout than companies that introduced them later.

Unions are also actively involved in the promotion of safety and health at work. They publish pamphlets on psychosocial risks for workers and union officials. On the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April 2015, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB/ABVV) requested that the Fund for Occupational Diseases should officially recognise stress-related diseases, in all sectors (in French). The FGTB/ABVV agrees with INAMI/RIZIV that these diseases are now the leading occupational health problem. A survey by the union found that among interviewees who considered that work organisation can affect mental and physical health, more than 90% cited stress and burnout as the two major negative consequences to their health (in French).

Political debates have not specifically dealt with this issue. However, the Minister for Labour invited social partners in summer 2015 to discuss the possibility of reform to define more appropriate ways to organise end-of-career transitions, and also to improve working flexibility measures such as flexitime, time accounts and teleworking. Another proposal is to replace the current strong link between wage and seniority with a link between wage and skills. The overall aim is to enhance the quality of work by reducing stress and burnout, and by promoting a good work–family balance.

The government, supported by the employer organisations, expected a vote to be taken on these reforms in November 2015. However, unions are concerned about employment individualisation and proposals to make work organisation more flexible. The General Secretaries of FGTB/ABVV and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC/ACV) refused to attend the first reform discussions, arguing that initial proposals should be drawn up by the social partners and not with the government. However, the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB/ACVLB) did agree to take part.

Commentary

The official statistics show that psychosocial risks issues have become a major issue in Belgium. The development of policies to put the onus on employers to deal with such risks has been one of the most sensitive decisions taken by the government. The management and prevention of psychological risks are now being progressively integrated into daily managerial practice, thanks to the labour movement’s demands. Belgium has taken a crucial step in the fight against psychosocial risks through the adoption of new legislation.

Nevertheless, new legal developments could emerge in the next few months. Recent studies show that psychosocial issues remain a hot topic for public authorities, for whom the primary concern is the cost of social security payments; for companies, whose focus is organisational efficiency; and for unions, who want to secure better working conditions. Although discussions have already begun, the negotiations might be lengthy and difficult, because unions are still fighting for formal acknowledgment of burnout as an occupational disease. 

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