Preventing and managing stress at work – practice around Europe

Newsletter articles

1 Feb 2011

Employment Studies Issue 13

Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow

Andrea BroughtonWork-related stress is a major cause of absence from work, and stress levels are likely to be particularly high in the current uncertain economic climate. This is not a problem that is limited to the UK – stress is a concern in workplaces around the rest of Europe. While the extent of the problem varies from country to country, the root causes of stress have largely been similarly identified in most countries. A recent study undertaken by IES looks at stress levels and how stress is managed around the EU.

Monitoring stress

There is a wide range of activities and surveys designed to monitor the incidence of stress in EU Member States. Some countries have more than one survey in place and are able to provide trend information on stress, though the majority do not have national representative surveys. Cohort surveys, for example, exist in Belgium (the Belstress study) and Sweden (the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health, SLOSH).

In addition, there is a range of one-off surveys available around the EU, some of which are relatively broad in scope, while others focus more narrowly on psychosocial risks at work. These surveys can provide an interesting snapshot of stress-related issues at a particular point in time.

Levels of work-related stress

The level and extent of work-related stress is often difficult to evaluate, as definitions and methodologies used in research vary considerably. The identification of stress also has some subjective elements that depend on the nature of individuals and their own responses to stress factors. In some countries, particularly the Nordic countries, stress is widely recognised as a work-related issue; in other countries, the focus is on well-being in the workplace; elsewhere in the EU, however, stress does not have such a high profile. Further, trends vary from country to country, with some reporting an increase in stress levels, such as Germany, where stress is reported to have increased over the past five years, some reporting a decline, such as Sweden, where stress levels have fallen from a peak in 2003, and some stating that the trend has been broadly stable, such as Belgium. However, it can be difficult to monitor trends across many countries due to a lack of directly comparable data.

In terms of overall levels of stress in Europe, according to the fourth European Working Conditions Survey, the prevalence of stress in the new EU Member States (NMS) is higher, at 30 per cent on average, than in the EU15, where the average is 20 per cent. Workers in many of the NMS have experienced increased levels of stress as their country moves from a planned to a market economy. For example, in Romania it is estimated that more than four million permanent jobs have been lost over the past 20 years, which no doubt has had a significant effect on increasing stress levels among the country’s workforce.

Stress levels are also reported to vary according to occupation, with a number of occupations classified as comparatively high risk for stress. These include teachers, nurses, doctors, bus drivers, traffic wardens and police officers. The stressors contained in some occupations (for example, doctors and nurses who are likely to be in contact with sick people), combined with organisational factors (ie whether they have time to deal properly with their patients, whether they have support to help them deal with the emotional impact of working with people who are suffering) can result in high levels of stress. In the case of teachers, in Slovenia 84 per cent of teachers surveyed in 2008 said that their profession was very or exceedingly stressful.

Public awareness and level of debate on stress

The public debate regarding stress is arguably further advanced in some EU15 countries than in some NMS. In the Netherlands, for example, stress has been under public discussion for around four decades. In Sweden, stress has also been a part of the public debate for some decades, although it has centered more on long-term absence from work in the context of social insurance reforms. In Finland, the debate on stress has been subsumed more into a general debate on well-being at work, and the notion that healthy living and well-being measures can serve to prevent stress.

By contrast, the prominence of stress-related issues in the public debate is relatively low in some of the NMS, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, though there are exceptions. In the Czech Republic, for example, stress has gained a relatively high profile in public debate, although this has arguably not yet been translated into policy action. Furthermore, although there is no tradition of debate on stress in Estonia, there are plans to raise awareness of this issue during the next four years, and new survey data on stress will be collected in Slovenia over the coming two years.

Management of stress

A European-level social partners’ agreement on work-related stress, concluded in 2004, sets a common European framework for the management of stress. However, ways in which to prevent and manage stress at work vary, depending on national culture, traditions and practices. In some countries, national-level initiatives exist, while in others, including the UK, it is primarily at the company level that stress is managed.

At national level, it is possible to put into place an overarching framework, either based on a national collective agreement, as in the case of Belgium, or in the form of a national programme, as in the case of Finland, which can encourage a systematic and coordinated approach to stress management.

Sectoral schemes to improve stress management can be even more targeted, as they tend to bring together the main actors in a specific sector, who have a good overview of the main issues that need addressing. In the Netherlands, for example, it is common practice to put into place covenants in particular sectors, which are schemes agreed on a voluntary basis by the sectoral social partners within the framework of a government programme. One such covenant in the hotels and restaurants sector has proved particularly successful in reducing stress.

At workplace level, one of the main triggers for initiating a stress management programme is high absence rates: managers are often under pressure to reduce absence and, as stress is usually a major cause of long-term absence, stress management programmes are seen as a way to tackle this. Absence is also an indicator that can, if data are collected in the right way, be measured in order to show progress and to provide a business case for absence management. At Corneliani, a medium-size clothing manufacturing plant based in Mantua, Italy, for example, absence was reduced significantly when the organisation introduced stress management, targeting a number of hotspots.

An organisation’s awareness of the main stress factors is also a vital component of stress management. If an organisation is aware of the main issues and problems (ideally through having run a survey or undergone a process that identifies stress hotspots), it can put into place targeted measures that address these issues. In some cases, this can be a relatively simple and practical exercise. There are many examples of this: in the Czech Republic, the automotive components manufacturer Olho-Technik Czech established a range of stress-reducing measures such as the provision of wall bars in manufacturing shops in order to enable employees to stretch out; in France, the office furniture manufacturer Steelcase introduced measures to improve communications and to implement worker suggestions on process improvement; and in Portugal, the software company Microsoft put into place counselling for staff, in addition to a range of well-being measures such as free massage and the offer of reduced health club membership.

Overall, there is significant evidence from this study that in the majority of EU countries, organisations and companies are grappling with the issue of work-related stress and implementing measures and initiatives to try to prevent and minimise it. These include activities such as: addressing ‘hotspot’ issues for stress such as a lack of control over work pace and organisation, intensity of work and long working hours; running healthy living and sports campaigns; and offering dedicated support to those suffering from stress.

The ultimate goal for organisations is to reduce sickness absence related to stress and to increase the general well-being of the workforce, as this will guard against stress in the future and brings attendant benefits such as increased morale, reduced employee turnover and increased productivity. Best practice around the EU highlighted issues such as: good data collection; the importance of a robust stress policy and of involving all relevant actors (particularly employee representatives) in the development of this policy; ensuring senior management buy-in to the stress management process; developing good communications; and identifying the key issues in order to be in a position to put into place targeted measures to address them.

It is likely that stress levels will remain high around Europe, given the ongoing enterprise restructuring and uncertainty generated by the recent recession. Stress is therefore likely to remain high on the agenda of the relevant actors in the EU for some time to come.

For more information on this work, please contact Andrea Broughton at IES.