Traditionally, stress at the workplace has been considered a problem to be managed by human resources (HR) departments rather than a health and safety (H&S) issue. Nevertheless In the European Union, work-related stress (WRS) is the second most common work-related health problem, after back pain (musculoskeletal problems), affecting 22% of EU workers. WRS can be caused by psychosocial hazards such as work design, organisation and management (e.g. high job demands and low job control, and issues like bullying and violence at work). Moreover, physical hazards, such as noise and temperature, can also contribute to WRS.
Therefore reducing stress at the workplace is a task that should be undertaken by H&S managers, who should ensure working conditions minimize the risk of stress. As well as the costs of increased absenteeism and reduced productivity, businesses who fail to manage stress in their workplaces can face legal liability. In 2005, in New Zealand, a company was convicted for failing to provide a safe working environment under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, after an employee broke down from work-related stress.
In the European Union, non regulatory efforts started in 2004 when a framework agreement on work-related stress was signed by employer organizations and trade unions. The objective of the agreement was to provide employers and workers with a framework to identify and prevent or manage problems of work-related stress. The agreement applies to all workplaces and all workers, irrespective of the size of the company, field of activity, or form of employment contract or relationship, although it is recognized that not all workplaces and not all workers are necessarily affected by work-related stress.
The agreement defines stress as a state, which is accompanied by physical, psychological or social complaints or dysfunctions and which results from individuals feeling unable to bridge a gap with the requirements or expectations placed on them. OSHA, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, has adopted this definition: “work-related stress is experienced when the demands of the work environment exceed the workers’ ability to cope with (or control) them.
Stress at work is identified as the second most important threat posed by the working environment in Europe. According to a Eurofund survey, in 2005, stress at work was experienced by 22% of working Europeans (compared to 28% in the EU15 in 2000), with significant differences in the level of stress at work in different Member States. For instances, Greece (55%), Slovenia (38%), Sweden (38%) and Latvia (37%) have high levels of workers affected by stress at work. While in Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands (16%) and in the United Kingdom (12%) the number of affected workers is significantly lower than the EU average. Nevertheless, there are cultural differences related to the perception and reporting of WRS and psychosocial risks in workplaces which need further investigation on the development of reliable indicators of WRS.
Some countries are adopting regulations on work-related stress
As a follow up of the framework agreement on stress several countries have adopted measures to tackle or control the risk deriving from stress at work. The concrete implementation efforts against work-related stress have tackled the problem from various perspectives and with different approaches: through sectoral collective agreements; through company level collective agreements or just through disseminating information and raising the awareness of workers and employers of the issue. Some countries have chosen to adopt regulatory provisions to address and prevent stress at work. Although a general risk assessment must evaluate all risks at work, Belgium and Italy specifically provide that stress must be evaluated when performing the general workplace risk assessment. In France, the 2004 framework agreement has been transposed and made mandatory from April 2009, thus increasing the responsibility and liability of the employer.
Other countries where regulatory initiatives have been taken include Czech Republic, Denmark and Slovakia. In Australia, managing work-related stress is considered part of an employer’s legal duty to provide a safe working environment. And in Asia, some governments are starting to address workplace stress by releasing guidance for employers on how to manage workplace stress and violence.
You can tackle workplace stress by looking at the risk factors in your workplace
In order to prevent and reduce work-related stress, employers should look at the following risk factors in their workplace:
- The culture or ‘atmosphere’ of the organization and how it approaches work-related stress;
- Demands such as workload and exposure to physical hazards;
- Control – how much influence workers have in the way they do their work;
- Relationships – including issues like bullying and harassment;
- Change – how organizational change is managed and communicated;
- Role – whether the workers understand their role in the organization and that conflict in their role is avoided;
- Support from colleagues and managers;
- Training to give workers the skills to perform their task;
- Individual factors – catering for individual differences.
More information on work-related stress can be found in the OSHA report OSH in figures: stress at work — facts and figures and in the OSHA fact sheet on Work-related stress.
As more and more countries adopt regulations on work-related stress, Enhesa has been helping companies identify what duties apply to them and how they can continue to remain in compliance. If you would like to know how Enhesa can help your company, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vito A. Buonsante