EU Work Stress Policy Failing?

European employers’ organisations and trade unions have failed to establish a minimum level of protection against work-related stress across Europe, in line with an agreement signed in 2004, according to a recent Commission report.

The Commission’s Staff Working Document published on 24 February 2011 reviews how the European Social Partners’ Framework Agreement on work-related stress was implemented by national social partners in Member States, and what effect this had on national responses to work-related stress.

Aim of the Framework Agreement on Work Related Stress

Work-related stress became an increasing concern in the field of occupational health as an emerging psychosocial health risk throughout the EU during the 1990s. The Framework Agreement aims to provide employers and workers with a framework to identify and prevent or manage problems of work-related stress and increase the awareness and understanding of employers, workers and their representatives.

The Framework Agreement on work-related stress an autonomous agreement (a non-legislative Agreement that does has to be implemented by the signatories) was concluded in October 2004 by the EU Social Partners (European employers’ organisations and trade unions)  represented by UNICE (now BUSINESSEUROPE), the European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public services (CEEP), European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME), the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) (and the Liaison Committee Eurocadres (Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff)/CEC Managers).

Implementation of the Framework Agreement

The report notes that legislation in half the Member States makes no explicit reference to psychosocial risks, while in the other half such risks were addressed in different forms though not as in as much detail as in the Agreement.

The Commission’s Report finds that the Framework Agreement was implemented through one of four types of measure:
• national collective agreements
• general agreements or recommendations and guidelines
• joint declarations
• legislation
However, implementation varied according to factors such as:
• legal status and options for enforcing the implementing instrument
• level of coverage
• the representative status of the signatories, whether on the employers’ side or that of trade union organisations, and their balance of power
• the consistency and extent of social partners’ efforts

Results of the Implementation of the Framework Agreement at National Level

The Commission highlights the following positive results at national level:
• Bi-partite or tri-partite discussions were held on work-related stress in all countries.
• The Framework Agreement triggered or accelerated discussions and the development of policies in the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Norway.
• The Framework Agreement raised awareness and led to agreements on guidance and led to many Member States publishing guidance documents.
• Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Italy amended legislation to specifically cover psychosocial risks and/or stress.
• Binding national collective agreements were signed in Denmark, Greece, France, Italy, and Romania to implement the Framework Agreement. 
However Commission also notes that:
• Framework Agreement was not implemented in Malta, Cyprus, Poland and Slovenia.
• Social partners in Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, and Malta did not report on the implementation of the Agreement. 
• Social partners in Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, France, Italy, Hungary, Malta, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia did not use fully the Agreement for improving awareness and understanding of work-related stress and the proposed solutions. 
• The social partners in Spain, Luxembourg, Austria, Ireland, Germany, Czech Republic, concluded agreements that were not declared generally binding, or joint guidelines to promote awareness-raising. Non-binding agreements and unilateral action generally failed to cover all workers. 
• Access of Workers and Employers to clear programmes of actions was difficult in Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia.

Difficulties Encountered in the Implementation of the Framework Agreement

The Commission also highlights the difficulties that social partners encountered during the implementation of the Framework Agreement:
• The lack of experience with autonomous social partner negotiations and under developed social dialogue structures, particularly in Member States that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007. 
• The ability of employers’ organisations and trade unions to commit their members to the outcomes of negotiations posed problems in the implementation process in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Portugal, Greece Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, where public authorities play an important role.
• Low levels of membership of trade unions and employers’ associations could prevent implementing social partners’ agreements autonomously, as the number of employers and employees covered directly was low. 
• Some European social partner members are not directly involved in collective bargaining in their Member States, or have little authority over affiliates active in sectors and organisations. 
• The definition of stress: the distinction between work-related and non-work-related stress, the way in which work is organised can actually lead to stress, the feasibility of measuring stress, and the effectiveness of measures to manage it, including cost, was considered as too complex, too subjective, and too sensitive to be addressed systematically. 
• A general lack of awareness over work-related stress among the general public, in the workforce, and employers’ and trade union organisations.

Lessons Learnt from the Implementation of the Framework Agreement

The Commission draws a number of lessons from the implementation of the Framework Agreement:
• The Framework Agreement has not become the point of reference for all actors in all Member States due to its non-binding and general nature. 
• Autonomous Agreements, such as the Framework Agreement could not guarantee comparable outcomes and full coverage in all countries.
• European social partners’ play a key coordinating role.
• Work-related stress was often a new issue for social partners, which meant that national actors needed to discuss and agree on their responsibilities for implementation. Implementation involved a continuous process of learning.  
• Ministries, occupation health and safety agencies and work inspectorates, play an important and sometimes dominant role virtually everywhere, which required a shared understanding with social partners concerning psychosocial risks at work.
• Work inspectorates played a particularly important role particularly carrying out preventive activities but also in advising and guiding companies on how to deal with work-related stress. 
• Initiatives that were jointly developed disseminated and applied by social partners made policy on work-related stress more effective. This was also the case where social partners relied on public institutions to devise guidance.

Commission Conclusions and Future Outlook

The Commission concludes that the main aim of the Framework Agreement, to achieve a minimum level of protection of employees against work-related throughout the EU, was not met due to the considerably varied levels of protection between the Member States. The Commission recognises that more needs to be done at both EU and national levels to extend protection and develop more ways of dealing with the issue.

Nonetheless the Commission considers that the Framework Agreement has raised the awareness of the issue of work-related stress and the associated psychosocial risks and should be considered as an on-going general policy development throughout the EU. The Commission points out that the impact of the Framework Agreement is likely to increase with time as the first concrete results and did not occur until 2008.

The Commission considers that in the future, the following actions should be taken to improve the Framework Agreement:
• Social partners could pursue discussions where implementation has yet to start, or where it has not yet been finalised. 
• In countries where only unilateral, complementary and fragmented implementing measures have been taken, jointly developed instruments should be adopted that cover more organisations and workers.
• Proper monitoring and reporting of developments should be carried out particularly where social partners rely on non-binding instruments. 
• The impact of the Framework Agreement could be improved by raising awareness and knowledge about it and/or its implementation instrument, increasing efforts to improve adoption of the Framework Agreement in the workplace, developing sector-specific instruments and providing practical guidelines and ready-to-use tools. 
• Member State authorities could consider regulation, guidance and awareness-raising where necessary. 
• Implementing instruments of a mandatory nature could be legislated.