How work stress is changing occupational health requirements

Occupational health means more than ever before. Is your program prepared for regulations against work stress and other psychosocial risk factors? 

by Ulrike Steiger

Work stress and psychosocial risks are top of mind, but they might be wreaking more havoc than many of us realized. According to the EU strategic framework on health and safety at work 2021-2027, even before the pandemic, mental health problems affected about 84 million people in the EU alone. And stress in the workplace contributes to around half of all lost working days in the EU. Today, our new “normal” also involves regulators turning their attention to issues beyond expanded physical health restrictions. With mental-health requirements continuing to strengthen, businesses will need to align with a new awareness around these risks – with a plan to protect against them. 

Work stress & psychosocial risk factors: Raising a red flag – and awareness.

In accordance with the Council Directive (89/391/EEC), employers in the European Union must assess risk factors in their facilities. Often overlooked yet implicit in the directive are psychosocial factors. This means including risks such as excessive workloads, lack of support, psychological and sexual harassment, and third-party violence in a risk assessment. Yet, for many employers, this obligation remains unclear. 

The 2019 European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risksi looked at how well European workplaces manage safety and health risks. Its questionnaire and interviews with over 45,000 companies in the 28 EU Member States and the EU‘s single market revealed some concerning results. Of note, the survey found that the smaller the workplace, the more likely it is to report zero psychosocial risk factors. Based on their analyses of the responses, the brief’s authors speculate that many employers aren’t aware of what represents a psychosocial risk. Furthermore, the survey shows that one difficulty in dealing with them is employees’ reluctance to talk openly about the issues.  

Stress in the workplace contributes to around half of all lost working days in the EU

A framework for a healthier and safer future without work stress.

Recognising that much remains to be done to build awareness and bring more of these issues to light, the European Commission released its latest EU strategic framework on health and safety at work. The initiative identifies key objectives for improving standards in 2021-2027, including to: 

Launch dedicated campaigns to support healthy workplaces. One such campaign is “2020-2022: Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load,” which, as part of preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders, covers ensuring proper ergonomics and accounting for psychosocial risks. Another campaign, “2023 – 2025: Safe and healthy work in the digital age” focuses on the impact of new digital technologies on work and workplaces associated occupational health challenges and opportunities.

Prepare a non-legislative EU-level initiative related to mental health at work that assesses emerging issues related to workers’ mental health

Ensure appropriate follow-up to the European Parliament Resolution on the right to disconnect. 

Prepare a non-legislative EU-level initiative related to mental health at work that assesses emerging issues related to workers’ mental health. 

Ensure appropriate follow-up to the European Parliament Resolution on the right to disconnect. 

As the new Strategic Framework comes into place, you can already refer to specific guidance for EU businesses in the EU-OSHA “E-guide to managing stress and psychosocial risks. 

Reinforcing employees’ right to disconnect.

The result of the much-discussed “Right to Disconnect” from European Parliament, many Member States call for employers to protect their employees’ work-life balance. More specifically, the right to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related emails, telephone calls, or other messages outside regular working hours.  

The Right to Disconnect suggests employers put in place a policy, taking into account the particular needs of the business and its workforce. In April 2021, Ireland issued its non-mandatory Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect. Similarly, in October 2020, Spain adopted legislation requiring employers with remote workers (except those working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions) to develop an internal policy to ensure the right to digital disconnection out of working hours. 

Measures against moral harassment.

Another psychosocial risk factor making waves in business policies is moral harassment – or misconduct against an employee by their superior, subordinate, or co-worker. Due to moral harassment’s detrimental effects, such as stress and burn-out, many EU Member States are urging businesses to keep their workforces safe. 

For example, in January 2021, Ireland issued a non-mandatory Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work. Romania’s legislation, requiring employers to take the necessary measures to prevent and combat all acts of moral harassment in the workplace, entered into force August 2021. Effective 19 September 2021, In Greece, employers with more than 20 workers must adopt policies to prevent and eliminate violence and harassment at the workplace.  

Other movements to protect against work stress & psychosocial factors.

Most of the forward motion we’ve seen against work stress and psychosocial factors been seen in the EU. However, other jurisdictions already have guidelines in place prioritizing mental wellness at work, including official guidance to follow as well as training and policy requirements. 

Examples of guidance 

Australia is one example. While legislation on mental health and harassment at the workplace in this county hasn’t changed, WorkSafe Australia has issued various guidance documents to assist employers in creating healthy and safe workplaces, including: 

  • Online Abuse in the Workplace-Information for Employers 
  • Guidance to prevent workplace sexual harassment  
  • Guide on preventing workplace violence and aggression. 

Including in training 

Since January 2021, employers in South Korea must include the topic in training. More specifically, they must cover preventing and managing health issues caused by workplace harassment or verbal abuse during the general health and safety-related training. 

Similarly, in California, companies with 5 or more employees must continue complying with harassment prevention training requirements now aligned with the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), effective 11 February 2021. Notably, if the company hires employees between ages 14 to 17 or temporary employees for less than six months, it must also provide such training. 

Policy requirements 

In Canada Ontario (as of 2 June 2022), companies that employ 25 or more workers must have a written policy in place with respect to disconnecting from work (such as not engaging in work-related communications). Furthermore, companies must provide a copy of the written policy to each worker within 30 days of preparing the policy – and retain copies of every written policy for 3 years after it ceases to be in effect. This follows from the Working for Workers Act 2021, which amends the Employment Standards Act. 

To eliminate work stress & psychosocial risk, elevate them to a top priority.

Many other elements, such as living conditions and genetics, influence a person’s mental health. But in the end, work stress and psychosocial risk factors transform into poor mental health, which translates into physical health issues. And that endangers both your workforce and business. To keep your employees safe, be proactive in your occupational mental health protection. Above all, don’t let the lack of regulations in your jurisdictions keep you from taking measures. Use existing practices and legislation as guides to developing your own internal policies to keep these (often hidden) hindrances from creeping in to hurt your employees. 

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