Policy, law and guidance for psychosocial issues in the workplace: an EU perspective

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Aditya Jain, Nottingham University Business School, and Stavroula Leka, Centre for Organizational Health and Development, University of Nottingham


Management of psychosocial issues is among employers’ responsibilities as stipulated in the European Union (EU) Framework Directive on safety and health at work [1] which obliges employers to manage occupational risks in a preventive manner and to establish health and safety procedures and systems to do so. Following the introduction of the 1989 EC Council Framework Directive 89/391/EEC on Safety and Health of Workers at Work [1], a number of policies and approaches have been developed and implemented in Europe. Most of these policies are based on the risk management paradigm and include both ‘hard’ or ‘regulatory/binding’ policies and ‘soft’ or ‘non-binding/voluntary’ policies. This article discusses the policy context and presents the key policies to manage in Europe.

Policy context for psychosocial risk management at the EU level

Data over the past years has documented a change in occupational safety and health (OSH) trends in Europe (and elsewhere in the world). The nature of work has changed dramatically due to globalisation, migration, technological advances and the emergence of the knowledge-based economy. These changes have been accompanied by the prevalence of new and emerging types of risk to workers’ health and safety [2]. Perhaps the most widely acknowledged new OSH challenges are, which are linked to problems such as work-related stress and workplace violence, and harassment and bullying have a significant impact on workers’ health leading to high human as well as economic costs.

Consequently a large number of approaches to prevent and manage psychosocial risks have been implemented at the policy level in Europe where prevention is the guiding principle for Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) legislation

Policy initiatives in the area of psychosocial risk management

Policies and approaches relevant to the management of psychosocial risks, can take various forms. On the basis of existing literature, policy initiatives which relate to psychosocial risk management can be classified as [3]: - Legislation/policy development - Standards at national/stakeholder levels - Stakeholder/collective agreements - Signed declarations - International organisation action - Social dialogue initiatives - National strategy development - Development of guidelines - Economic incentives/programmes - Establishing networks/partnerships.

These initiatives include both ‘regulatory policies’ which comprise legal regulations (such as EU directives, national legislation, ILO conventions) as well as ‘non-binding/voluntary’ policies developed by recognised national, European and international organisations which may take, for example, the form of specifications, guidance and social partner agreements [4].

While the regulatory standards set the minimum level of protection deemed appropriate by the Community that provides a level playing field for businesses operating within the large European domestic market [5], voluntary standards covering OSH management are linked to the ‘business case’ intended to provide organisations with the elements of an effective OSH management system that can be integrated with other management requirements and help organisations achieve OSH and economic objectives [6]. OSH regulations have increasingly changed from a prescriptive style to a more ‘self regulatory’ and ‘goal setting’ model and have established a general framework for systematic OSH management. At the same time the new regulations have influenced the development of OSH management systems [2].

Regulatory policies of relevance to the management of psychosocial risks

Table 1 presents hard’ or ‘regulatory/binding’ policies indirectly related to psychosocial risks applicable to the EU member states. Even though each of these regulations addresses certain aspects of the psychosocial work environment, it should be noted that the terms ‘stress’ and are not mentioned explicitly in most pieces of legislation [4]. The main example in this respect is the key EC regulatory OSH standard, the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC on Safety and Health of Workers at Work [1]. Even though the Directive asks employers to ensure workers’ health and safety in every aspect related to work, ‘addressing all types of risk at source’, it does not explicitly mention the terms ‘psychosocial risk’ or ‘work-related stress’. However, it does require employers to ‘adapt the work to the individual, especially as regards the design of work places, the choice of work equipment and the choice of working and production methods, with a view, in particular, to alleviating monotonous work and work at a predetermined work-rate, developing a coherent overall prevention policy which covers technology, organization of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors related to the working environment’. In this sense, there is a reference to, and provision for, risks related to the psychosocial work environment. Table 1: Regulatory standards including aspects related to psychosocial risks

Table 1: Regulatory standards indirectly related to psychosocial risks; Source: Adapted from Leka et al., 2011b [4]

It should be noted here that the level of specificity of the national regulatory OSH frameworks vary substantially between the different EU member states [7]. Some Member States limit their OSH legislation to that set by the EU Framework Directive and do not explicitly mention psychosocial risks (e.g. Luxembourg, Romania and Spain), while others highlight that psychosocial risks or mental health do need to be considered as part of OSH (e.g. Denmark, Finland, Greece and Sweden). Others require psychosocial risk assessments (e.g. Bulgaria, Germany, Latvia, Portugal and the United Kingdom) with a select few advocating the involvement of a psychosocial risk expert (Austria and Belgium). However, there is a constant change with regard to this, since several Member States are currently reviewing their approach to psychosocial risks at work, e.g. Spain has set up a tripartite working group at national level to decide on how to deal with psychosocial risks at work and Sweden is currently reviewing their legislation on the issue.

Voluntary policies of relevance to the management of psychosocial risks

In the last decade, new ‘softer’ forms of policy which directly refer to psychosocial risks and its associated problems have been initiated in the EU through increased stakeholder involvement within such frameworks as social dialogue [8] and corporate social responsibility [9] [10]. Participants in European social dialogue – ETUC (trade unions), BUSINESSEUROPE (private sector employers), UEAPME (small businesses), and CEEP (public employers) - have concluded ‘voluntary’ framework agreements, on topics such as, work-related stress [5], and harassment and violence at work [11]. An autonomous and/or ‘voluntary’ agreement signed by the European social partners creates a contractual obligation for the affiliated organisations of the signatory parties to implement the agreement at each appropriate level of the national system of industrial relations instead of being incorporated into a Directive [12].

The framework agreement on work-related stress aims at increasing the awareness and understanding of employers, workers and their representatives of work-related stress. The agreement clarifies the relevance of the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC [1] for the management of work-related stress and psychosocial risks. As such it identifies that the responsibility for implementing measures to identify and prevent problems of work-related stress and help to manage them when they do arise rests with the employer. It also places emphasis on participation and collaboration of workers [5]. The framework agreement on harassment and violence at work aims to increase awareness and understanding of employers, workers and their representatives of workplace harassment and violence, and to provide them with an action-oriented framework to identify, manage and prevent relevant problems [11]. However, it should be noted that both framework agreements work-related stress and on harassment and violence at work are broad and do not provide any guidance at the enterprise level on how to design, implement, and sustain programmes for psychosocial risk management.

In addition, in 2008, a high level conference concluded the European Pact for Mental Health and Wellbeing which recognised that, “the level of mental health and well-being in the population is a key resource for the success of the EU as a knowledge-based society and economy,” and for the realisation of the objectives of the Lisbon strategy, on growth and jobs, social cohesion and sustainable development [13]. The Pact also called on the European Commission to issue a proposal for a Council Recommendation on Mental Health and Well-being. The European Parliament passed a non-legislative resolution on mental health in 2009 [14].

Additional examples of voluntary policy approaches in the form of guidance (and also of relevance to the EU) have been developed by international organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the ILO. These include guidance on psychosocial risks at work, work-related stress and psychological harassment [15] [16] [17] [18]. Table 2 presents a list of voluntary OSH policies which directly address psychosocial risks and their management. These policy approaches directly refer to the concepts of psychosocial risk, stress, harassment and violence that apply to the EU member states.

Table 2: Voluntary OSH standards directly related to psychosocial risk management

Table 2: Voluntary OSH standards directly related to psychosocial risk management; Source: Leka et al., 2011b [4]

Apart from the voluntary standards presented above, it should also be noted that in some EU member states efforts have been made to address psychosocial risks and work-related stress through a similar national approaches. For example, in Denmark one initiative is a tripartite collaboration between social partners, the Danish Working Environment Authority and the National Research Centre for Working Environment that lead to the development of a methodology supporting enterprises in identifying and managing psychosocial risks [19]. In Slovakia, regional public health offices and the labour inspectorate provide information and counselling on the prevention of work-related stress to employers and employees [14]. In response to a series of suicides at a telecommunication company underdoing restructuring, the French government implemented a plan where employers have to develop collective agreements on the prevention of work-related stress and the organisation of regional seminars on stress for SMEs [20]). A final example is from the United Kingdom where the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has developed the Management Standards approach to help reduce the levels of work-related stress reported by British workers [21].

The effectiveness of existing standards for psychosocial risk management

As presented in the previous section, considerable progress has been achieved in the EU in recognising the relevance of work-related stress in particular and of psychosocial risk factors in general. This is due to: a) legal and institutional developments, starting with the EU Framework Directive on Health and Safety in 1989 and subsequent adaptation of national legal frameworks in EU member states, and continuing with the development of infrastructures, the initiation of campaigns and initiatives b) the growing body of scientific knowledge on work-related stress and psychosocial factors and the dissemination of this knowledge and c) complementary actions taken by social partners within the European Social Dialogue framework.

However, in spite of all progress that has been achieved, it has been widely acknowledged that there exists a gap between policy and practice due to lack of clarity in regulatory frameworks and related guidance on the management of and work-related stress as a result of which this many initiatives have not had the impact anticipated both by experts and policy makers [7] [22] [23]. On the one hand, there is a common European Framework, and the new EU culture of risk prevention which combines a broad range of approaches, and on the other hand, the situation at the level of EU member states is quite diverse. Despite the increasing relevance and impact of psychosocial risks and work-related stress [24] countries differ in their acknowledgement, awareness and prioritisation of these issues [25]. This situation is certainly accentuated by EU enlargement, with the percentage of workers reporting stress at work ranging from 16% up to 55% in EU member states [26].

As pointed out in Section 2.1 above, the variation between different Member States in the specificity of implementation of EU Framework Directives means that some limit themselves to that set by the European Union while others expand to include and define psychosocial risks [7]. This contributes to a lack of awareness and prioritisation through the lack of clarity and specificity on the terminology used. The second is that although the different policies are based on related paradigms, very much rooted in the philosophy of OSH legislation, very few of them provide specific guidance, tools and training on psychosocial risk management to enable organisations (and especially small and medium-sized enterprises – SMEs) to manage psychosocial risks successfully. The third is whether existing policies have actually fulfilled expectations in practice in the area of psychosocial risk management [4].

In addition, lack of awareness and prioritisation of these issues across the enlarged EU is often associated with lack of expertise, research and appropriate infrastructure [2]. At the same time, the responsibility for understanding and managing the interface between work, employment and mental health varies greatly across countries [26]. Challenges for governments and regulatory systems are also connected with current trends toward outsourcing, considering that “the regulatory response to outsourcing has been fragmentary and neither the development of instruments nor compliance measures have kept pace with emerging problems” (pg. 185) [27].

These are issues picked up on in the European Commission’s [14] evaluation of the implementation of the EU Framework Agreement on Work-related Stress. On one hand the report found that the Framework developed consensus that work-related stress is a structural issue requiring attention and intervention, leading to additional discussion and the implementation of tools and resources. However, the same report also identified variation in the success of this Agreement across Member States, with the Agreement not implemented in all Member States or that not all workers are covered through national level agreements.


On the basis of this review it can be concluded that while the regulatory policies set the minimum level of protection for workers, voluntary policy initiatives can enable organisations to go beyond their legal obligations in relation to the management of psychosocial risks. However, reports by the European Commission [14] and EU-OSHA/Eurofound [7] have found an inconsistency in the use of ‘stress’ and ‘psychosocial risks’. Even though recent voluntary standards seek to address this, very few provide specific guidance on psychosocial risk management to enable organisations to manage successfully, therefore there is a clear need to develop specific tools and guidance to further promote practice in this area of occupational health and safety.

Links for further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Safety and Health Legislation. Available at: [15]

WHO – World Health Organization, Worker's health: Global plan of action, Sixtieth World Health Assembly, 2007. Available at: [16]

ILO – International Labour Office, Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment (SafeWork), Available at: [17]

HSE –Health and Safety Executive, International comparison of health and safety responsibilities of company directors, RR535 Research Report, 2007. Available at: [18]

PRIMA-EF – Psychosocial Risk Management – Excellence Framework, Guidance on the European Framework for Psychosocial Risk Management (2010).

EU-OSHA and Eurofound, ‘Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention’, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2014.


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