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On 7 and 8 December 2022, the European Trade Union Institute held the 8th edition of the ‘Psychosocial Risk Network’ meeting. The meeting focused on new research outcomes to contribute to shaping a collective answer to this urgent problem across the EU. Studies show that the risks are common across sectors, but also that three groups of workers are in the most vulnerable situation – the young, the women and the less educated – and that mental health issues have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and its heavy consequences on employment and work conditions.

Too often considered an individual problem rather than a collective one, psycho-social risks (PSR) at work share the same sources and mechanisms across sectors as they are strongly connected to working and employment conditions. According to Hélène Sultan-Taïeb, full professor at the department of organisation and human resources, school of management - University of Québec at Montréal (UQAM, Canada), five PSR factors - job strain, the imbalance due to high effort and low reward, the job insecurity, long working hours, and bullying and/or harassment on workplaces can lead to mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. They often have also physical consequences: a recent study found that coronary heart disease can be attributed to psycho-social work exposures.  She underlined that cardiovascular diseases and depression attributable to work exposures are often underreported and usually not recognised as occupational diseases by public occupational health systems. There is a lot at stake since absenteeism costs represent a large part of total costs attributable to psychosocial work factors. The financial burden of absenteeism costs is mainly borne by employers, and when a disease is related to work exposures and not compensated as such, expenses are borne by public healthcare systems, which are financed by employees and employers.

A recent report published by ETUI also highlighted these risk factors and identified involuntarily part-time work, the unpredictability of salary, and uncertainty about the renewal of temporary contracts as other factors to consider. Preventing measures were also put forward in this report concerning health and long-term care sectors – minimising temporary contracts and eliminating zero-hours contracts, maintaining adequate staffing levels, hiring, and training more staff and ensuring recovery time – but they can be challenging to implement in the context of staff shortages, warned Paula Franklin, a senior researcher at ETUI. Eliminating risks at their source requires collective measures, insofar as they are beyond the control of individual workers.

The pandemic exacerbated poor working conditions and the decline of workers’ mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an existing crisis, especially in the healthcare and long-term care sectors, resulting in excessive workloads and the use of a high number of floating staff. It has also influenced the increase in remote working and temporary contracts, which effects were felt in the volume of working hours and levels of job insecurity. It is unquestionable that there is a connection between poor working conditions and depression-related outcomes, and the pandemic has contributed to the decline of workers' mental health, which concerned up to 40% of European employees in 2020, emphasised Insa Backhaus, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Medical Sociology at Heinrich Heine University.

She also found that the burden of poor mental health or being at risk of depression was not equally distributed among the population, with significant differences observed among female workers, younger employees, and those with a lower level of education, who are at greater risk of experiencing depression. Consequently, it is important to address these inequalities and protect vulnerable groups of workers from the negative impacts of psychosocial risks. However, young workers often lack protection, said Yolanda Gil Alonso, president of the Youth Committee of the ETUC, and organising them remains a challenge for trade unions because of the difficulty to access these workers.

Another adverse effect of the pandemic consisted of the increasing surveillance of workers, in the context of the development of remote working, underlined Ben Richards, a senior policy adviser at UNI Global Union. The use of surveillance technologies to monitor workers is a growing concern, and more research is needed to develop coordinated trade union responses to address the negative impacts of these technologies on workers' mental and physical health. Adam Rogalewski, a policy officer on health and social care at the European federation of public service unions (EPSU), added that the Covid-19 pandemic also highlighted the high vulnerability of healthcare and social workers and the unique role of high emotional demands in these sectors.

Calling for a dedicated EU directive

The European Parliament has drawn attention to PSR at work, and the speakers of this eight PSR Network meeting of trade unions emphasised the need for a dedicated EU directive to address this issue explicitly. The campaign, launched by Eurocadres with the support of ETUC, gathers more than 45 trade unions across Europe and intends to push PSR as a political priority. The campaign focuses on five key demands: the participation of workers and worker representatives in the conception and implementation of workplace measures, the clarification of employers’ obligations to systematically assess and mitigate psycho-social risk factors, the obligation for employers to set social targets and objectives to reduce work-related stress in dialogue with employees, access to training for all workers and specialized training for managers to prevent psycho-social risks at work, and the guarantee that there will be no repercussions for employees who raise concerns on these topics. As Eurocadres president Nayla Glaise pointed out, more than half of working days lost in the EU are caused by work-related stress.

 Marian Schaapman, the Head of the working conditions, health and safety unit at ETUI, underscored that the main focus should be on how work is organised and managed, concluding that a new EU directive would provide a strong basis for collective bargaining. She further highlighted that research results could root such a directive, emphasising that national legislation shows that it is possible to regulate PSR by a collective approach across sectors, and to consider transversal factors and costs that occur both on the health and the financial sides.