The new EU health-and-safety strategy risks being a missed opportunity to address workplace mental health and wellbeing.
Before Covid-19, the case for effectively managing psychosocial risks and workplace mental health and wellbeing was already clear. Regrettably, the pandemic has fuelled stress, uncertainty and the intensity of work—and not just for those in labour-intensive sectors.
The costs of doing nothing are unacceptable; nor are they limited to lost productivity and sickness absence. A recent study by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization confirmed that working at least 55 hours per week was associated with higher risk of ischemic heart disease and stroke than working 35-40 hours.
External pressures on individuals to work long hours and even overtime, allied to work intensification, have magnified with the public-health crisis, with deleterious effects on workers’ mental as well as physical health. Adding to the existing evidence, these developments justify shifting to a more proactive management of workplace wellbeing and psychosocial risks.
Yet, so far, the European Commission has been overly timid on legislative change. The preparation of the Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027 brought a unique opportunity to lead the way, under the auspices of the European Pillar of Social Rights (‘healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment’). But the proposal issued by the commission in late June falls short.
This despite the favourable momentum and numerous expressions of wide support, from the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, the social partners and members of civil society, for inclusion of wellbeing at work transversally into relevant national and EU policies.
Regulating psychosocial risks has been an issue longstanding on the policy agenda and is going to remain so. The recommended instrument in the strategic framework is however a non-legislative EU-level initiative to provide guidance, before the end of 2022. While this would increase awareness and bolster social dialogue, non-binding guidelines don’t trigger political will and collective action at member-state level.
What is needed is a specific directive on psychosocial risks in the workplace. This should be incorporated into the strategic framework, affirming that the management of psychosocial risks and mental health in the workplace is a priority on EU and member-state lawmakers’ agendas. It should be allied with an EU mental-health strategy which, recognising the changing world of work, prioritises the work-related aspect.
The Coalition for Mental Health and Wellbeing in the European Parliament encourages working with member states so that workplace mental health and wellbeing are incorporated into key labour and occupational-safety and health policies. Stronger alignment will also be needed with initiatives from like-minded bodies such as the WHO, which is producing guidelines for mental health and work and has made high-level recommendations on the mental-health impacts of Covid-19 in its European region. The study affirms:
Occupational health services, including mental health and psychosocial support, workplace supportive policies (on, for instance, occupational safety and health and human resources) for workers and interventions to prevent work-related stress and promote mental well-being and resilience are needed, particularly for young workers, older workers, female workers, frontline workers and workers from vulnerable disadvantaged groups, including precariously employed people and employees returning to work after experiencing mental health issues or after sickness absence related to mental health.
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Guidance needs also to be provided however on how workplace mental-health and wellbeing programmes can adapt to the particularities of member states. Mental-health awareness and stigma, cultural and legal considerations, public mental-health care, and the availability and quality of workplace mental-health provision can all vary.
The commission does not explain how the strategy is expected to keep pace with extraordinarily rapid technological and socio-economic changes with potential adverse effects on workers’ mental health and wellbeing. These include stressful interactions with robots, algorithmic decision-making in performance management, worker surveillance and monitoring, and a technology-optimised pace of work.
The framework needs in that context to stress the importance, and benefits, of a risk-based approach to managing work-related psychosocial hazards, as demanded two decades ago by the ILO in its 2001 Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems. Assessment, management and prevention need to be similar to that adopted towards physical workplace risks, as the recently published first International Standard (ISO 45003)—Psychological Health and Safety at Work: Guidelines for Managing Psychosocial Risks—recommends.
Work-related violence and harassment have been a systemic challenge in European workplaces. The new framework also needs to impose a firm commitment by member states to ratify and implement ILO convention 190 on violence and harassment. The proposal for a council decision authorising member states to ratify the convention needs to be supplanted by a more strategic approach, to ensure the right of every worker to a world of work free from threat.
If not properly tackled, the exclusion of these very important issues from the framework will represent a missed opportunity—to the detriment of workers’ mental health and wellbeing.