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After a two-year break due to the pandemic, the seventh meeting of the European Trade Union Institute on psychosocial risks at work took place during an online seminar organized in mid-October 2021. The focus was placed on PSR during the Covid-19 crisis. Although PSR is a well-known workplace phenomenon, the pandemic has exposed inequalities and worsened existing risks, making the problem more critical. Participants pleaded for an EU directive, as the risks must be tackled as a collective issue that require collective solutions. 

An OECD and Eurofound study on mental health during the pandemic stated that mental health deteriorated in all OECD countries in 2020, with the highest share of the population experiencing anxiety and depression. Workers from the healthcare and social care sectors were among the professional groups that were exposed the most to PSR. The pandemic affected them strongly, as sources of PSR arise from a conjugation of organisational, managerial, social, and economic factors. The lack of personal protective equipment, job content, including irregular shifts and new roles, heavy workload and long working hours contributed to the increased risks. According to Paula Franklin, a senior researcher at ETUI who mapped the phenomenon, the observed physical and psychological outcomes encompass burnout, anxiety, depression, insomnia, fatigue, or post-traumatic stress symptoms. She said that preventive measures should fit the workers’ reality and enable them to participate in the organisation of occupational safety and health measures.

Mental and physical consequences

Psychosocial risks include feelings of insecurity (related to the job, the incomes, the rights and social protection, the working time, the future of employment or employability, the representation of the worker’s voice) and of lack of justice. These factors explain why precarious workers are in particularly fragile situation. Indeed, there is a clear connection between the quality of work and precarious employment and between precarious employment and mental health, as explained by Christophe Vanroelen, professor of sociology at the Brussels’ University (VUB). The pandemic deeply affected teaching professions characterised by unfair work conditions and poor salaries. It also disturbed their emotional bonds due to social distancing and social isolation. According to Susan Flocken, European director at ETUCE, up to half of the teachers experienced stress and anxiety, while up to one-third showed signs of depression. Additionally, Hélène Sultan-Taïeb, a professor at the Quebec University of Montréal (UQAM), and Isabelle Niedhammer, a research director at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM), highlighted that PSR might also lead to cardiovascular diseases.

The adverse effects of telework

For education professionals, which include a vast number of workers from various sectors, telework became a norm during the pandemic. Remote working has contributed to increasing the workload, disturbing work–life balance and giving rise to feelings of social isolation. Pierre Bérastégui, a researcher at ETUI, explained that teleworking might be considered a temporary solution to face the crisis and a long-term transformation of work modalities. To be effective and viable, the transition to structural telework must involve a reorganisation of work processes. According to Slavica Uzelac, executive officer at Eurocadres, telework raised inequality issues, as bigger companies are primarily better equipped, provide training and have company agreements. Additionally, the lack of adapted and ergonomic equipment at home may result in musculoskeletal disorders. Although telework is likely to be stressful, many workers say that they have had a good experience in telework regarding its possibilities in terms of flexibility and autonomy. However, the risk is that this transition to structural telework may become an economic strategy to the detriment of health and security at work.

An increase in violence at workplaces

Women are generally the most exposed to violence and sexual harassment. During the pandemic, they were placed on the frontline: in Europe, 70% of essential workers were women. A survey conducted by UNI Europa showed that they were highly impacted by economic violence, considering their lower salaries and their more precarious forms of work. Service workers were particularly exposed, leading to a severe impact on the long-term mental health of frontline workers, especially women who faced violence from customers, clients, or patients. In some cases, this has also led to physical injuries. Amel Djemail, equal opportunities director at UniEuropa, noted that the absence of policies for and employers’ lack of support in responding to and preventing this violence affected many women. Furthermore, the aftermath includes decreased job performance, increased absenteeism, decreased motivation, reduced productivity, the deterioration of labour relations, higher turnover and recruitment difficulties. Additionally, an impact on women’s incomes was observed.

A momentum for an EU directive

The European directive on occupational safety and health, adopted in 1989, provides a legal framework in a quantified approach of risks. Nevertheless, according to Aude Cefaliello, a researcher at ETUI, the mental health dimension is not explicitly covered by this directive. There are no doubts that workers’ health and safety should cover the mental health of the workers, but there is currently no dedicated legislation to address PSR at the EU level. Several member states have a ‘sign’ of PSR or the mental dimension of health in their legislation. Still, workers’ protection remains unequal. The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the need for a European directive with a clear definition of PSR. The good news is that a draft report from the EU Parliament encourages improvements in the safety and health of workers at work for the practical assessment and management of PSR. Now, having adequate legislation seems possible. ‘Trade unions must keep repeating the need for a directive’, said Nina Hedegaard Nielsen, a senior policy advisor on occupational health and safety at the Danish trade union FH. In light of this perspective, trade unions have launched a campaign for an EU law to tackle work-related stress amid a mental health crisis worsened by lockdowns.

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