Friday 30. July 2021
#189 - January 2016

Work-related stress and illness affects half of Europe’s workforce

Around half of Europe’s workforce believe that stress in their workplace is a normal state of affairs. Stress directly affects their health and their work/home balance. What is the European Commission doing about this?

I’m in total burnouta nurse, recently questioned about her work, admitted. “I did a lot of extra shifts. I was working really hard, even when sick. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t done that. I live alone and have problems with my health.” This account reveals a reality that is widespread and affects salaried workers in every sector of the labour market.


The generally accelerating pace of living is having a highly worrying impact on working lives. How can people manage to balance their home and working lives? How can they stand up to the pressure of work made worse by computerisation, which ensures that “thanks to” emails and mobile phones, work-related stress is pursuing them even into their evenings and weekends?


Stress is expensive

Stress and work-related exhaustion both figure in the list of “psychosocial” risks. They are the cause of a number of illnesses and symptoms (insomnia, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, psychosomatic illnesses etc). According to European Directive 89/391/EEC, employers are legally obliged to reduce psychosocial risks. There are fears that respecting this obligation would inevitably incur too many extra costs. In fact, not eliminating these risks can turn out to be even more expensive, as can be seen by a quick look at the statistics.


In 2013, a project funded by the EU and managed by Matrix calculated that the annual cost of work-related cases of depression in European workplaces came to €617 billion. This figure includes the costs linked to absenteeism (€272 billion), loss in productivity (€242 billion), and healthcare out-goings (€63 billion). These are sobering figures, all of which are to be found in the report Calculating the costs of work-related stress and psychosocial risks published last November by the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work .


Regulations chucked out the window

It is not primarily a question of cost, however. Working in a healthy and safe environment is a fundamental human right. But it would seem that the European Commission no longer regards as a priority either the dignity of workers, or their family lives, or their state of health. Herman Fonck, of the Christian trade association confederation in Belgium ACV-CSC and President of Eurofound, regrets that the European Commission’s 2016 work programme is not paying enough attention to questions of health and safety. Instead, it tends to relegate health standards to the category of useless and heavy-handed red tape.


In fact, since 2015 the European Commission has been implementing a programme of administrative simplification called REFIT, which aims “to make EU law simpler and to reduce regulatory costs, thus contributing to a clear, stable and predictable regulatory framework supporting growth and jobs.


Should regulation really be seen as a burden or a stumbling block to growth? In the REFIT basket for 2015 we find the proposal for a revised Maternity Leave Directive, earlier stalled and now definitively scrapped, and there’s still no news about the Working Time Directive. On the side of the European Parliament, we understand that the Commission is unlikely to put forward any new proposal for social legislation before the British 2016 Referendum, on the grounds that Prime Minister David Cameron should not be frightened off by any new social legislation that might be deemed to “go too far”.


While no new documents should be expected immediately on the social legislation front, that does not mean there is no debate or dialogue on this topic. At the beginning of December, the European Commission launched a public consultation on ways of improving work-life balance and ways to reduce barriers to women entering the labour market. Thus the Commission declares that it wants to explore new avenues “to allow for working parents and people with dependent relatives to better balance family and work life”.


It is imperative that family associations, trade unions, worker movements and even individual citizens should send in-put to this consultation, which runs until 17 February 2016. This is their moment to remind the EU that the health of workers and the balance between work and family life is not a mere side issue but a driver of the Treaty of Lisbon-inspired “sustainable and competitive social market economy” that the European Union is aiming to become.


Johanna Touzel



Translated from the original text in French


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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.