Multi-industry agreement reached on stress at work

The French social partners concluded a national multi-industry agreement on stress at work in early July 2008. It transposes the 2004 European framework agreement on work-related stress and adds to it in many areas. Against the background of several suicides of workers in the car industry, the government also initiated tripartite talks on stress at work. According to estimates, stress at work leads to 400,000 illnesses and almost 3.5 million days of sick leave a year.

Multi-industry bargaining on stress at work started on 7 April 2008 between the five main trade union confederations and the three representative employer organisations. After four bargaining sessions in three months of negotiations, which ended on 2 July 2008, a draft agreement was approved, on the employer side, by the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF), the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) and the Craftwork Employers’ Association (Union professionnelle artisanale, UPA). On the trade union side, the draft agreement was approved by the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l’encadrement – Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) and the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT).

The agreement seeks to implement the European framework agreement on work-related stress (78Kb PDF) (EU0410206F), signed in October 2004 by the EU-level social partners. The obligation to transpose this agreement helped to speed up bargaining in France, which was also influenced by several suicides of workers in the car industry in 2007 (FR0711039I).

Main points of agreement

The French multi-industry agreement aims, on the one hand, to improve ‘awareness and understanding of stress at work’ and, on the other, to ‘prevent, eliminate or, if not, then at least reduce problems of stress at work’. The agreement’s main points are as follows.

  • Defining stress was one of the main difficulties in the negotiations. The definition used by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (OSHA) was preferred to that used in the European framework agreement. It refers to ‘prolonged or repeated exposure to intense pressure’.
  • In order to identify stress, the text focuses on indicators and the analysis of a certain number of factors, such as work organisation and processes, working conditions and environment, communications and subjective factors. The central role of occupational health officers is emphasised.
  • Employers are given the responsibility for deciding on appropriate measures in relation to stress. Workplace representative bodies – or in their absence, workers – must be associated with the implementation of these measures.
  • Sectoral and company-level agreements can lead to exemption from the measures set out in the multi-industry agreement, but only if they are more favourable to workers. The signatories of the agreement have demanded its extension by the government to cover all employers and employees.
  • The signatories of the agreement on stress undertake to start negotiations within a year on harassment and violence at work, with a view to transposing the April 2007 European framework agreement on this issue (EU0705019F).

Parallel government discussions

A tripartite conference – bringing together trade unions, employers and the government – on working conditions began on 4 October 2007 (FR0712029I). The Minister of Labour, Social Relations and Solidarity, Xavier Bertrand, commissioned two experts – Philippe Nasse, an honorary magistrate, and Patrick Legeron, a psychiatrist – to draw up a report ‘on determining, measuring and monitoring psychosocial risks at work (risques psychosociaux au travail, RPSs)’.

The final report, which was submitted on 12 March 2008, makes nine proposals, namely to:

  • improve national statistics by drawing up an ‘overall indicator’ for RPSs on the basis of a survey of collective and individual dimensions, as well as specific indicators based on national surveys and existing information;
  • carry out pilot investigations in all three branches of the civil service – that is, in central government, local authorities and public hospitals;
  • examine the viability of incentives within the social security scheme covering workplace accidents and occupational illnesses, with the aim of reducing RPSs. However, the report is not in favour of classifying RPSs as occupational diseases;
  • record the suicides of workers at work and analyse them, using the psychosociological method called ‘psychological autopsy’;
  • launch a public information campaign on stress at work;
  • train and inform the players concerned within companies, whose role should be reinforced;
  • create an internet portal for informing companies and employees, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro companies which do not have a workplace health and safety committee (Comité d’hygiène, de sécurité et des conditions de travail, CHSCT);
  • ask a new Working Conditions Steering Committee (Conseil d’Orientation des Conditions de Travail) to monitor the implementation of these measures and draw up an annual report on the state of progress regarding other proposals.

Minister Bertrand confirmed the launching of an annual national survey on stress at work by the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, INSEE) – initial results should be ready in 2009. He also proposed:

  • extending CHSCTs’ right to alert the authorities of health and safety problems to new areas, including work organisation and intensification, and ‘forms of management that do not respect individuals’;
  • creating a social dialogue framework on working conditions in micro enterprises, which do not have CHSCTs.

Social partner reactions

CFTC and CFDT have already confirmed that they will sign the draft agreement. CFTC considers that it contains ‘several important areas of progress’ and CFDT believes that ‘the negotiations which terminated on 2 July have improved the European text’. The latter trade union confederation emphasises that ‘the employers’ side ended up accepting recognition of the responsibility of work organisation for creating stress’.

The remaining three trade union confederations – CGT, CGT-FO and CFE-CGC – have favourable opinions on the draft, but their signature will depend on consultations with their respective member unions.

MEDEF considers that ‘this draft agreement is a good compromise overall’, and that the employers’ side ‘gave in quite a bit on all of the text’.

As for the Nasse-Longeron report, the trade unions believe that it hardly touches on the role of work organisation. They claim that psychological autopsies of those who have committed suicide are unacceptable, because they will not add anything new, besides trying to show that suicides only reflect individual factors. The major psychosocial survey that is meant to link mental health and working conditions is also criticised, because it seems to challenge the numerous studies that already exist in France and Europe – and also, again, to prefer diagnosing mental pathologies rather than taking into account occupational factors. As regards prevention, the trade unions deplore that the report contains nothing regarding work organisation which is likely to generate stress, nor in relation to ‘pathogenic management systems’ or the need for social dialogue as a tool for making it possible to highlight stress factors.

Commentary

Among the work-related psychosocial risks, stress is the most widespread and constitutes a major challenge for health at work, and thus for public health. The National Health and Safety Research Institute for the prevention of accidents at work and occupational diseases (Institut National de Recherche et de Sécurité pour la prévention des accidents du travail et des maladies professionnelles, INRS) estimates that stress at work leads to 400,000 illnesses and almost 3.5 million days of sick leave a year.

Étienne Lecomte, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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