European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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25 November 2019

Spotlighting burnout

Sixième séminaire syndical européen sur les risques psychosociaux

Organised by the ETUI, the sixth meeting of the European trade union network on psychosocial risks at work took place on 24 and 25 September 2019 at Louvain (Belgium). Coming from 14 different countries, twenty-two union representatives working in the field of occupational health took part in this annual meeting to share information and experiences relating to psychosocial risks.

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This sixth workshop focused first on the damage caused through exposure to psychosocial risk factors, and second on the resilience-based strategies gaining ground nearly everywhere. Opening the workshop, Per Hilmersson, Deputy Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), presented the ETUC’s occupational health and safety priorities for the next four years. By way of introduction to the workshop’s key theme, Fabienne Scandella, the ETUI researcher responsible for coordinating the network, focused the spotlight on burnout, presenting approaches based on individual adaptation and painting a picture of the multiple challenges facing the European trade union movement. Sarah Lyons, responsible for health and safety issues at the UK’s National Education Union (NEU), illustrated these challenges by showing how the promotion of well-being and resilience is tending to act as a substitute for an OSH prevention culture in the British educational sector.  Without diminishing in any way the growth in the number of teachers suffering from burnout, this approach shifts responsibility from the employer to the teacher. The next item on the workshop agenda was the 2018 Eurofound report on burnout in the workplace presented by Christina Aumayr-Pintar, head of research at the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. This presentation provided an overview of the available data on the prevalence of what the World Health Organisation (WHO) now recognises as a “work-related phenomenon” and took stock of the policies outlined at European level to contain it.

Looking further at the problem of burnout, the next presentation was given by Pierre Firket, a doctor and director of CITES, the Liege (Belgium) clinic for work-related stress. He called for a “work clinic”, i.e. an approach allowing the link between a worker’s poor mental state and bad working conditions to be identified and dealt with. Dr Firket described the clinical aspects of the neurophysiological rupture behind burnout (e.g. symptoms, reversibility, etc.). Now that the link to work had been established, all that remained to be done was for burnout to be recognised as an occupational disease. Looking at this aspect, Verónica Martínez Barbero, a labour inspector and chairwoman of the Galician Council of Professional Relations in Spain, started by presenting the various schemes for recognising occupational diseases existing in Europe. She then went on to identify obstacles likely to hinder recognition of this pathology as an occupational disease (e.g. providing proof of the causal link, the non-specific nature of certain symptoms, etc.). After this presentation, the participants – using a world cafe approach – set to work on developing union burnout strategies aimed at countering the resilience approach or strengthening prevention.

The workshop’s second day was devoted to a second key issue: the link between musculoskeletal disorders and psychosocial risks. Yves Roquelaure, professor of occupational medicine at the University of Angers, presented the report he had compiled on this topic at the request of the ETUI. His presentation of the theoretical aspects was backed by a presentation of clinical case studies by Dr Pascale Barrot, an occupational physician. These twin presentations were particularly effective in helping representatives understand the link between these two pathologies associated with work intensification. The two doctors insisted that the psychosocial risk factors were more prognostic than the mechanical factors in causing musculoskeletal disorders. Both called for an overall and integrated approach to preventing such disorders. After this presentation, participants split up into groups to work on developing a union line of reasoning for an EU directive on the prevention of both musculoskeletal disorders and psychosocial risks.

As is now tradition, the workshop ended with a session devoted to presenting initiatives in the field of preventing work-related psychosocial risks at national or sectoral level by the network’s member organisations. Rolf Ghering, political secretary of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW), presented the results of a social partner project conducted together with the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC) in the form of a best practice guide, the aim of which is to provide guidelines on measures to improve those aspects of work and its organisation which the social partners are able to directly influence. Eurocadres president Martin Jefflén in turn presented the European campaign, the aim of which is to put pressure on the European Commission to come up with a specific directive on psychosocial risks. This campaign was officially launched on 17 October 2019.

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