Taboo in the EU

Work-related stress is a major headache for EU businesses, affecting more
than 40 million workers and costing about £14bn a year in absenteeism and
related health bills. Yet, HR professionals in mainland Europe won’t discuss,
let alone address the issue Wendy Jones reports from Luxembourg

There is, on this side of the water, a social stigma attached to discussion
of psychological problems. As a spokeswoman for the HR department of one of
Europe’s biggest banking groups admitted, "We just don’t like to talk
about this kind of thing".

Gérard Lasfargues, professor of occupational medicine at the University
Hospital of Tours, France, talks of a ‘taboo’, even within the medical
profession, over discussions of work-related mental health problems. In an
article published by the Libération newspaper, he says there is pressure on
employers who are reluctant to see their management methods questioned, and
there is mistrust among employees.

To make matters worse, he states that mental health problems or depression
are not officially recognised as occupational diseases. Some specialists are convinced
there is a direct link between psychological problems and pressure at work.
Others argue there are many causes and you cannot identify just one factor.

"Without official recognition, the mental suffering at work will remain
hidden," says Lasfargues. "How many people are suffering from
overwork, tiredness or depression? We’ve no idea. There aren’t any figures, so
there’s no way of preventing this," he says.

While official statistics on work-related stress remain elusive in mainland
Europe, there is plenty of European research to draw upon. A study in 2000, by
the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions,
reports that 28 per cent of workers in the European Union (EU) – some 41
million workers – say work-related stress is affecting their health. The report
concludes that stress is the second most reported occupational health problem
across Europe. (Back pain is the first, cited by 30 per cent).

A 2001 Eurostat study on work-related health problems in the EU says that stress
accounts for more than a quarter of absences from work of two weeks or more.
Further statistics from the European Commission estimate that 16 per cent of
male and 22 per cent of female heart diseases in the EU are due to work-related
stress.

Tom Cox and Eusebio Rial-Gonz lez, in their report on stress at work
for the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, say: "People
experience stress when they feel an imbalance between the demands placed on
them and the personal and environmental resources that they have to cope with
those demands. This relationshipÉ can be strongly moderated by factors such as
social support – both at work and outside work – and control over work."

According to this, and other European studies, workplace stress is an increasingly
common phenomenon. Reasons are akin to those in the UK – the introduction of
new working practices, such as self-regulated work, increased use of
information and communication technology, downsizing, outsourcing,
subcontracting and widespread job insecurity.

French author Dr Patrick Légeron, in his book Le Stress au Travail (Stress
at Work), specifically cites performance-based targets, constant interruptions,
e-mail invasion and even the reduction of working time as just a few of the
countless extra stressors encountered daily.

Meanwhile, occupational health (OH) practitioner, Dr Patrizia Thiry,
concludes from her experience of working with companies in Luxembourg, that
increasing workplace stress could be attributed to the current economic downturn,
and to fear among employees of redundancies.

So how are mainland Europeans tackling the problem?

"It’s easier for doctors to prescribe medicine than to change the
methods of organisation at work," says Lasfargues. He believes problems of
workplace organisation are behind most of the stress-related symptoms he
encounters. He says more effort should be placed on understanding and detecting
these problems, and argues the best people to do this are OH doctors, not GPs –
as GPs don’t understand the politics of the workplace.

According to stress guidelines from the EU’s safety and health at work
agency, the priority is to develop and test ways of applying the wealth of
research that exists to ‘real world’ situations. "Employees, unions and
employers should be working together to develop effective stress management
systems based on risk management," says the agency.

Several research institutes, notably Finland’s Institute of Occupational
Health, TNO Work and Health of The Netherlands, and the UK’s Institute of Work,
Health and Organisations have already produced their own management standards
for handling stress.

At EU-level, talks between the Union of Industrial and Employers’
Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the European Trade Union Confederation
(ETUC) are set to get begin this month on voluntary guidelines on work-related
stress. An EU statement says the aim is "for employers and workers’
representatives to reach agreement on how best to tackle the growing problem of
psychosocial risks at work without the need for additional legislation."

On the legal front, in its 2002 study, How to Tackle Psychosocial Issues and
Reduce Work-related Stress, the agency says no EU member state has specific
regulations on workplace stress. But all countries’ general legal frameworks
refer to ‘psychosocial’ factors (covering the design, organisation and
management of work) that are linked to stress. In some countries – for example,
Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden – the report notes, these
laws go further than the European Directive (89/391/EEC) on improvements of
health and safety at work.

Stress is not included on the official list of occupational diseases in any
EU country. This means there aren’t any compensation schemes for those
affected. In most European countries, "an appeal court is the only way to
obtain recognition for the negative effects of psychosocial risk factors and
stress," says the report.

Some countries have specific laws or regulations on bullying or harassment
at work. For example, France’s new law on ‘harcèlement moral’, introduced in
January 2002, bans repeated incidences of moral harassment at work that could
seriously affect the physical or mental well-being of employees, undermine
their dignity, or compromise their career prospects.

The country’s first ever case of alleged ‘moral harassment’ was brought in
October 2002. It was thrown out because, the judge said, the allegations
brought by the plaintiff did not go beyond the "normal pressures from
management, which are inherent in the life of every company facing competitive
pressure".

Finally, the introduction of the 35-hour week in France appears to be having
little impact on the country’s stressed businessmen and women. According to a
recent poll by white-collar workers’ union, CFE-CGC, 75 per cent of respondents
say they feel stressed at work. Significantly, 69 per cent of respondents say
the cut in hours means they now work ‘more intensely’ on a daily basis. A hefty
81 per cent of respondents say they work more than 40 hours per week and 25 per
cent claim to work over 50 hours per week.

European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions www.eurofound.eu.int
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work www.agency.osha.eu.int

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