Photo credits: peshkov

On 19 and 20 October, the European Trade Union Institute held its annual OSH conference, this year dedicated to psychosocial risks in (un)expected places. Building on previous events, the conference aimed to advance the debate on psychosocial risks by embracing segments of the working population that often fall outside the scope of PSR policies. Bringing together experts from academic and policy spheres, the discussion laid the foundations for a more holistic approach to addressing psychosocial risks at work.

The conference started with an overview of the issue of psychosocial risks in Europe. Insa Linnea Backhaus, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Medical Sociology (Heinrich Heine University, Germany) presented evidence on how psychosocial work factors contribute to the social gradient in health – with women, young adults and workers with a lower level of education being especially at risk. Next, EU-OSHA project manager Sarah Copsey presented the latest data of the ‘Flash Eurobarometer – OSH Pulse survey’ and offered valuable insights into a range of impacts the pandemic has had on workers’ health and wellbeing. 44% of European workers experience more work-related stress as a result of the pandemic, and 57% says workers are not consulted about the stressful aspects of work at their workplace. ETUI researcher Aude Cefaliello closed the session with an overview of national legislation in the EU with the aim of identifying relevant legal provisions for a PSR Directive. Cefaliello provided evidence on the fact that the presence of specific national legislation is associated with more enterprises having a work-related stress action plan – concluding on the effectiveness of specific legislation on psychosocial risks.

The following session was dedicated to remote work and started with a presentation by ETUI researcher Pierre Bérastégui discussing how platform work generates psychosocial risks through a greater imbalance between the job demands placed upon workers and the lack of available organisational resources to deal with them. Next, Louis-Alexandre Erb, research officer for the Directorate for Research, Studies and Statistics (DARES, France), presented the TraCov survey looking at the consequences of the massive shift to teleworking during the pandemic. The survey distinguishes five profiles of teleworkers according to teleworking behaviours and showed that one of them experienced the greatest deterioration in their working conditions – namely those working remotely in a hybrid manner and with no prior experience of teleworking. Finally, Eurocadres President Nayla Glaise provided an overview of the challenges managers are facing when it comes to managing a remote workforce: keeping workers connected, motivated and informed, and overcoming the lack of trust. Nayla Glaise also discussed what could be the content of a PSR directive, insisting on the importance of having ‘social targets’ – objectives for employers in reducing work-related stress.

The second day opened with a session dedicated to psychosocial risks ‘far away from the screen’. Annette Meng, postdoctoral researcher for the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (Denmark), presented the SeniorWorkingLife study investigating 'push' and 'stay' mechanisms for the labour market participation of senior workers. Managers’ attitudes towards older workers play a major role in the retention of these workers, with a 61% increased risk of loss of paid work before pension age when having experienced age discrimination. Dr Flavia Adalgisa Distefano, clinical psychologist and lecturer at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Italy), described the psychosocial risk factors faced by flight personnel: irregular shifts, sleep disturbance, psychological pressure and having to deal with aggressive passengers. Adalgisa Distefano also presented the 'Peer Support Program' – a tool focusing on the support between colleagues to address PSR in flight operations, developed in close collaboration with the Italian Union of Transport Workers (UILTRASPORTI). Next, the secretary of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers Rolf Gehring presented the joint activities conducted with the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC) on tackling psychosocial risks in the construction sector – including guidelines and measures tailored to the specific needs and characteristics of the construction industry.

The final session of the conference aimed at discussing how the ongoing transformation of the world of work is contributing to PSR, in order to advance durable solutions. It started with a keynote speech of Professor Evangelia Demerouti, full professor at Eindhoven University of Technology and author of the Job Demands-Resources model – one of the most popular and influential models in the field of organisational psychology. Psychosocial risks can be captured as excessive or badly designed job demands depleting workers’ energy, or as insufficient job resources decreasing workers’ motivation. Through different studies, Professor Demerouti demonstrated that job demands and resources can be measured, and that top-down and bottom-up interventions can influence employee wellbeing and performance in a favourable or unfavourable way. Professor Demerouti then laid the foundations of a framework to improve the psychosocial environment, consisting of four steps: 1) measuring job resources and demands, and their impact on wellbeing and performance; 2) interpreting the data collectively with all the relevant stakeholders; 3) strategising the allocation of efforts and achieving consensus on a selection of measures; 4) implementing the actions through job (re)design and training.

The keynote was then followed by a roundtable with Nina Hedegaard Nielsen, policy advisor for the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikerne), Martin Sonnberger, health & safety manager at Porr and member of the health & safety committee of the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC), and Professor Evangelia Demerouti. Nina Hedegaard Nielsen joined Professor Demerouti in stressing the importance of achieving a balance between job demands and resources – the more demands placed upon the workers, the more resources they have to be provided with – while at the same time acknowledging resources cannot entirely offset the negative impact of excessive demands. Professor Demerouti emphasised the critical role managers play in allocating resources and distributing demands, but also that they are in turn dependent on the resources and demands they receive from their own manager. Through practical examples in the construction sector, Martin Sonnberger highlighted that employers are not always in a position to influence some aspects of working conditions – notably when night shifts cannot be avoided due to societal needs.

Marian Schaapman, Head of the Health & Safety and Working Conditions Unit of the ETUI, wrapped up the discussion by emphasising the importance of bridging the perspectives of researchers, trade unions and workers to advance durable solutions. ‘We need to focus more on primary prevention and collective measures’, she added. ‘Like any other risks, psychosocial risks need to be prevented at the source: in the work content and in the organisation of work. We need to move in the direction of speaking about solutions much more’.