25 Percent of EU Workers Severely Stressed

By Roy Maurer Nov 10, 2014
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One-quarter of European workers feel stressed all or most of the time while on the job, negatively affecting their health, according to a report from Europe’s leading agencies on worker safety and health. The report found that monotonous tasks and high-intensity work are the most common risks resulting in negative health outcomes, including work-related stress. Researchers also found that fewer employees reported working long hours since 2005, but more were worried about job security. Meanwhile, 80 percent of managers said they were concerned about work-related stress, and almost 20 percent considered violence and harassment to be significant concerns. Despite this, less than one-third of businesses have procedures in place to deal with these concerns.

Psychosocial Risks in Europe: Prevalence and Strategies for Prevention was published jointly by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound). The data was compiled from a variety of sources, including the European Working Conditions Survey, which interviewed 44,000 workers covering 34 countries in 2010; and the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks, which interviewed 36,000 workers in 31 countries in 2009.

Published in concert with the continent-wide Healthy Workplaces Manage Stress campaign, the report recognizes the relationship between health and work across the 28-member European Union (EU), provides a snapshot of working conditions and mental health risks in the EU, and discusses how to manage those risks.

Dr. Christa Sedlatschek, the director of EU-OSHA, said in a statement that psychosocial risks that lead to work-related stress can be tackled in the same systematic way as “traditional” workplace risks. “This is an issue which can have enormous costs for both the health of employees and of businesses,” she said. “With work-related stress being the second most frequently reported health problem in Europe, and with costs to businesses of mental health disorders estimated at around 240 billion euros per year, this is something that we simply cannot afford to ignore.”

Risk Factors in the Work Environment

According to the report, the main risk factors leading to work-related stress include:

  • Heavy workload.
  • Long working hours.
  • Lack of control and autonomy at work.
  • Poor relationships with colleagues.
  • Lack of support at work.
  • Organizational change.

The main outcomes of stress are physical and mental health problems, absenteeism, reduced productivity, increased medical spending, and increased government welfare expenses, according to the report.

The research found that different risks affect different groups of workers. Irregular schedules are more common in the transportation sector than in manufacturing, for example, while adverse social behavior leading to emotional stress is a greater problem in the health and services-related sectors than in other areas.

Younger workers reported higher job insecurity and a greater need for further training to cope with job duties, whereas older workers reported having more difficulties in relation to social support and career prospects.

Men generally work longer hours and reported a slightly poorer work/life balance than women, but there was little real difference in terms of gender: 27 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported being stressed always or most of the time. Women were slightly more likely to report issues related to health and well-being: sleeping disorders were reported by 20 percent of women and 16 percent of men; musculoskeletal disorders were experienced by 61 percent of women and 58 percent of men; and women were more likely to suffer from poor mental well-being (22 percent) than men (17 percent).

Workers in large companies were slightly more likely to report experiencing a negative health effect from their work (30 percent), compared to workers in small and midsized establishments (27 percent). A similar pattern was found for absenteeism. Smaller companies were found to be less well informed about work-related stress and have fewer resources to comply with occupational safety and health regulations. Smaller companies were also less likely to implement risk-prevention programs than large companies.

The highest percentages of workers with poor mental well-being were reported in Lithuania (41 percent), Croatia (31 percent), the Czech Republic (32 percent) and Latvia (32 percent), while the lowest percentages were reported in Denmark (7 percent), Ireland (9 percent) and Spain (9 percent).

Concerned About Work-Related Stress

Work-related stress was reported to be of some or major concern in nearly 80 percent of establishments in the EU, putting stress at the same level as accidents and musculoskeletal disorders among the most commonly reported risks by managers. Violence or threats of violence and harassment are less widespread, as only 20 percent of managers considered these risks to be of major concern.

Concern over psychosocial risks increased steadily as the size of the establishment grew.

Work-related stress was reported to be of some or major concern in around 90 percent of large establishments (with 250 or more employees), and in 75 percent of the smallest establishments (with 10–19 employees). The most commonly reported risks leading to stress identified by managers were time pressure (52 percent), having to deal with difficult customers (50 percent), poor communication between management and employees (26 percent), and job insecurity (25 percent). Fifteen percent of managers identified unclear human resources policies as leading to work-related stress.

Dealing with Work-Related Stress

Between 25 percent and 30 percent of EU establishments have procedures in place to deal with psychosocial risks. The highest frequencies of stress-prevention programs were reported in Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Employers in the health care and social work sectors have the highest number of risk-prevention measures: 74 percent report providing employees with special training related to psychosocial risks, 60 percent report implementing changes in the work organization and 55 percent report providing confidential counseling for employees. “This might relate to the nature of the work in these specific sectors and to the level of awareness and custom in dealing with psychosocial risks in some countries,” the report said. Establishments in construction and manufacturing reported the fewest measures in place to manage psychosocial risks.

Larger companies were more likely to have programs to manage stress. For example, bullying- and harassment-prevention programs were reported in 50 percent of large establishments, but only 20 percent of small businesses. Employee training was the most frequently reported risk-prevention measure (nearly 60 percent), followed by changes in work organization (40 percent), redesign of the work area (37 percent), confidential counseling (34 percent), changes to working time (29 percent) and the set-up of a conflict resolution procedure (23 percent).

By country, workplace risk-prevention measures were reported most frequently in Finland and Romania and least likely to be reported in Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia. Managers in Finland and Sweden were most likely to take action if individual employees complain about work/life balance. Employers in Poland, Romania and Spain were most likely to provide information to employees about psychosocial risks and their effect on health and safety.

Seventy percent of managers across the EU reported that their employees know who to contact in case of work-related psychosocial problems.

“Measures addressing different aspects of work environment combined with individual interventions are the most effective solution,” according to EU-OSHA, as “single measures, especially when mainly targeting the individual, do not prove very effective.”

Recommendations

EU-OSHA recommended following a structured process when designing a psychosocial risk-prevention program, including:

  • Discussing the organization’s readiness for change.
  • Planning how the program will be communicated to the workforce.
  • Identifying specific risks that have the possibility to harm the health or safety of employees.
  • Developing an action plan, using the results of the risk assessment. The action plan should include the measures to be used, the plan for the implementation of the interventions, and the communication and evaluation plans. A participatory approach with employees is highly recommended.
  • Implementing solutions and interventions.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness and outcomes of the program.

Program elements can include:

  • Organizational policies and procedures, dealing with flexible work arrangements, workplace harassment, stress and time management, and conflict resolution.
  • Job design and workload management, such as modifying the work so that it better suits the skill set, interests or resources of the individual employee and helps reduce any ambiguity or conflict that an employee might perceive in his or her job role.
  • Increasing a workers’ autonomy and ability to influence their work environment by giving workers a say on their workload, working hours, teams they work on, resources and personal development.
  • Training to increase employers’ and workers’ awareness, recognition and understanding of work-related stress and harassment at work, as well as their antecedents and negative health effects, and employer responsibilities.
  • Offering employee assistance programs that help resolve employee concerns and return-to-work programs that help workers who have been on stress-related leave to adjust back to work.
  • Promoting the positive aspects of the work environment.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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