CEEP was invited to speak at an event in Lisbon “Time to end stress: Professionals and Managers in the frontline”. CEEP was represented for this occasion by Kate Ling from the NHS UK and long-standing member of the CEEP Social Affairs Board.

The event was organised by Eurocadres, the Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff, and the participants were trade unionists from a wide swathe of European countries, from the north (Finland, Sweden and Norway) to the south (Malta, Spain, Switzerland, Italy), the east (Romania, Croatia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Serbia) and west (Ireland, Portugal, France, Belgium, UK). All shared the concerns across a range of sectors about the ever-rising burden on employers, individuals and their families and wider society of mental ill-health arising from psycho-social risks (stress) at work.

Current EU legislation on occupational health and safety includes around 60 directives, none of which specifically cover stress at the workplace, though arguably employers’ duty to assess risks in the workplace and take appropriate action to safeguard workers’ health, encompasses duty of care towards employees’ mental as well as physical health. Also, unlike the many directives dealing with specific hazards and (for example) setting evidence-based EU-wide limits on workers’ exposure, occupational stress is less easy to measure and remedy.

There are examples from other European countries of public and private sector organisations who have taken the initiative to tackle stress at work, a couple of which (from Spain and Portugal) were showcased at the conference. Kate Ling spoke and debated in a panel session asking what policy makers can do to address the “stress epidemic”.

She asserted that according to a survey by UNISON, stress is the biggest reason behind sickness absence in the UK, costing an estimated 105 million working days and 1.67 billion euros, and affecting 30% of NHS staff every year.  The German trade union Verdi reports that mental ill-health accounts for about 13% of total days off work and will become the most common cause of early retirement in the near future. The picture across Europe is similar: an opinion poll conducted by EU-OSHA (the EU’s health and safety agency) showed that 51% of workers report that stress is common in their workplace, and 4 in 10 think it is not handled well.

From the perspective of an employer providing public services – in this case healthcare services – this scenario is especially challenging, as healthcare sector employers already experience significant difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. Whilst it can be very rewarding (and there is plenty of evidence that working per se is good for people), healthcare work can be perceived as unattractive. It is often physically and emotionally stressful, and existing workforce shortages are likely to be exacerbated as the European population ages. Greater numbers of older and sicker people, new technologies requiring constant upskilling, and more demanding patient expectations combine to result in high rates of turnover and burnout. Staff caring for other people are at risk of not being looked after themselves.

So what is or can be done to tackle this? Take-home messages were that success depended upon a genuinely participatory approach involving staff in identifying risk factors and developing and implementing strategies to manage (prevent and/or mitigate) those risks. Successful strategies vary according to the context but a common factor was giving teams and individuals a greater sense of control and autonomy, for example in developing more flexible working patterns where possible, offering opportunities for training and development to all staff, young and old, and upskilling staff to help them cope with the new digital skills they require. For these changes to happen, there needed to be a recognition of “burnout” as an occupational hazard, and good human resource management including a willingness to address safe staffing levels. Above all there needs to be on the one hand, committed and proactive leadership, and on the other hand staff prepared to take responsibility to address the problems and take up the opportunities offered.

In Kate Ling’s final remarks to conference colleagues, she suggested that more legislation was not the answer. The current directives oblige employers to conduct risk assessments and take appropriate action, but despite being in place for a long time legislation has not stemmed the rising tide of work-related stress. EU law is often not effectively transposed and implemented at national level. Experience from CEEP and HOSPEEM and their trade union partners shows that what really makes a difference in the workplace is employers and trade unions getting together at local level to effect real, concrete changes. Compliance with the law incentivises employers, but much more compelling are the sound economic arguments for investing in a healthy and productive workforce, resulting in better staff retention and motivation and a better service to patients or customers. 

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