In July 2020, four months into the pandemic, the European parliament adopted a text where mental health was defined as “a fundamental human right”. In a resolution, the MEPs called for a 2021-2027 action plan “with equal attention being paid to the biomedical and psycho-social factors of ill mental health” and asked the Commission to put this subject at the heart of its future policy making.
The crisis has certainly had a silver lining, a term – in fact – extremely abused at least at the beginning of it. Health, all kinds of health, the lack of health, health rights, health professionals, health reporters… everything and everybody gravitating around a topic so simple and easily forgotten was to be seen under a new light.
MEPs went as far as to say that “the long-term health effects of COVID-19, including the effects on mental health, are not yet known”. A few lines above the text reads: “the COVID-19 crisis has changed working conditions for many workers in Europe, highlighting some already existing issues and raising new questions regarding health and safety in the workplace”.
Yet, a revolutionary connection between mental health and labour was far from happening at a member state level.
Europe needs a dedicated Directive on work-related psycho-social risks, so states an 2018 Resolution of the European Trade Union Federation (ETUC), in order to reach more alignment in national regulation. Two recent publications of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) confirm this need.
“To tackle the issue effectively, the adoption of a new binding instrument at EU level is essential”, ETUI concludes at the basis of a mapping exercise of national regulation on PSR, showing big differences in quality and quantity of this regulation between member states, and an analysis of the poor or even absent regulation on PSR in most Central and Eastern European Member States. An EU directive specifically addressing work-related psychological risks, “developed with the involvement of the social partners”, would “set minimum standards on psychological risks”, “bring about legislative changes in the member states where they are needed most and gradually ensure an equal minimum level of protection for workers across the EU”.
It would help workers in countries where such a legislation doesn’t exist or only in a very rudimentary form. For instance, while labour is more likely to be linked to increased psychological risks, ETUI points out that in fact “there is an evident failure to address psychological risks at enterprise level” across Central and Eastern Europe.
Both approach and awareness vary a lot. According to a survey launched by the EU information agency for occupational safety and health (EU OSHA) in 2019, nearly 80% of managers are concerned about work-related stress. Pressure due to time constraints is a risk in the workplace for respondents in Finland, Sweden (74%) and Denmark (73%). Long and irregular working hours for respondents in Denmark (44%), Romania (40%) and Norway (34%). “Further analysis will be needed to show whether this high level of concern is due to the magnitude of the risk or the level of awareness among workplaces in those countries,” says EU OSHA.
In its policy recommendations, ETUI highlights that “the EU Occupational Safety and Health Framework directive does not cover psychological risks explicitly, while the implementation of non-binding framework agreements on work-related stress (2004) and on harassment and violence at work (2007), as well as other soft instruments are not sufficient to influence central and eastern European legislation”.
EU OSHA’s results refer to a time before the pandemic, but don’t show a much better pattern.
According to EU OSHA, mental health problems affected about 84 million people in the EU, half of EU workers consider stress to be common in their workplace, stress contributed to around half of all lost working days, nearly 80% of managers were concerned about work-related stress.
As a result of the pandemic, close to 40% of workers began to work remotely full time with new consequences on their health. At the same time, EU OSHA emphasises that “awareness is still not high enough when it comes to psychosocial risks”.
The last couple of years put the spotlight on the risks related to digitalisation and remote working.
“The main psychological risk at work would be to fall into burnout”, says burnout-specialised psychologist Lou Giulianelli. “According to my experience, risks are mainly linked to the context and the work environment – not to a particular profile of the person – with the virus greatly affecting the structure of work and people expected to be much more available.”
Cinzia Albanesi, professor of Community psychology and president of the European association of community psychology, agrees: “The pandemic has confirmed the strong association between high workload, job ambiguity and low job control and increased vulnerability to mental health disorder and psychological symptoms.”
“In a broader sense it showed that precarious, low qualified and low paid jobs are not equally distributed: gender pay gap, gender segregation, exclusion or marginalisation of migrants and ethnic minorities are realities”. An ETUI report on work, health and Covid-19 also show that different inequalities intersect: women, young people and migrants are more likely to work in precarious job with bad working conditions with a disproportional burden of both physical and psychosocial risks.
“A directive may help, of course,” says Albanesi. “The EU should also support the adoption of programmes and the implementation intervention to reduce work-related psychological risks and promote psychosocial well-being and mental health.”
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