Study: EU workers face stress-related health risks

A quarter of Europeans suffer from stress at work. [Helga Weber/Flickr]

One quarter of Europeans risk health problems due to stress at work, says the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and Eurofound, in a joint report (13 October).

Monotonous and repetitive tasks are to blame for distress, according to Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention joint report. Irregular working hours have also a negative impact on workers’ well-being.  

Situations, however, vary across the EU. Countries like Croatia, Estonia, and Bulgaria have the highest number of workers in Europe who perform monotonous and repetitive jobs. Almost 65% of their labour force is involved in such tasks every day.   

Most of them are plant and machine operators, work in craft and related trades, or have elementary occupations.

The findings also show that due to the economic crisis, people work longer hours and accept irregular schedules. This affects their work-life balance risking, their health and well-being.

In Denmark and the Czech Republic, almost 35% of workers indicated that their working time changes regularly, contrary to Cyprus, which has the lowest rate in irregular hours per employee.

If repetitive tasks and irregular schedules are easier to negotiate and change within a company on an individual basis, job security is a high psychological risk that is difficult to manage. With more than 24 million unemployed across the EU, according to Eurostat, temporary and short-term workers are in particular more exposed to stress caused by job insecurity.  

According to the report, in 2010, around 16% of EU workers expected to lose their job in the next six months. The number increased over the years in the Baltic states, and Ireland.

EU citizens employed in elementary occupations, operators and skilled workers in industry and construction have the highest level of job insecurity, the report says. On the contrary, managers and highly-skilled professionals feel they have nothing to fear regarding their job.

The study puts forward a few recommendations on how to diminish the stress of the EU work force.

The Eurofound’s Director, Juan Menendez-Valdes, commented, “Research shows that the role of social dialogue and social partners is relevant to raise awareness and implement interventions.”

For instance, at the company level, the employers, together with the trade unions, can develop measures to achieve work-life balance, offer trainings to improve workers’ competences, and establish rotating jobs programmes within the company.

But while these initiatives could work in one country, or for one company it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“Evidence shows that policies are not developed to the same extent in all European countries,” Menendez-Valdes continued. “Which can be explained by the different traditions of social dialogue and different governmental approaches, often related to the importance the country gives to psychosocial risks.”

Moreover, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) often find it difficult to adopt the same measures as big companies due to lack of resources and expertise. This leaves at risk a high number of people, as almost half of EU workers have a job with an SME.  

At the policy level, the report recommends that EU countries implement prevention measures through legislation, as some countries already have. Austria, for example, changed its labor legislation last year to include psychosocial risks as a potential cause of harm to the health of workers.

While the research says that many member countries made progress in adopting preventing measures, gaps in legislation still exist, and social partners are not always involved in the process. 

The safety and health at work is regulated by the EU Framework Directive which was adopted in 1989.

The law obliges employers to put in place measures to protect workers against accidents and diseases.

EU countries are required to implement the Directive in their national law but are given some leeway in choosing the most appropriate method of achieving the Directive’s goals.

Apart from this, the improvement of working conditions is also addressed by Article 151 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.

The European Commission strategy Europe 2020, which sets ambitious goals to achieve growth, also makes employment and workers’ well-being a priority.

In addition, the European social partners signed Framework Agreements on Work-related Stress in 2004 and on Harassment and Violence at Work in 2007.

These represent a starting point for national governments to recognising psychosocial risks as a danger to workers’ health and starting to address the problem.


  • Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention report

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