Policy, law and guidance for psychosocial issues in the workplace: an EU perspective
Aditya Jain, Nottingham University Business School, and Stavroula Leka, Centre for Organizational Health and Development, University of Nottingham
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Policy context for psychosocial risk management at the EU level
- 3 Policy initiatives in the area of psychosocial risk management
- 4 Conclusion
- 5 Links for further reading
- 6 References
Management of psychosocial issues is among employers’ responsibilities as stipulated in the European Union (EU) Framework Directive on safety and health at work  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 , 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.
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 . 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
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 :
- 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 ((International Labour Organisation) 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 .
While the regulatory standards set the minimum level of protection deemed appropriate by the EU Union that provides a level playing field for businesses operating within the large European domestic market , 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 . 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 .
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 psychosocial risks are not mentioned explicitly in most pieces of legislation . 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 . 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, organisation 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.
The interpretative document on the implementation of Council Directive 89/391/EEC in relation to mental health in the workplace provides further explanation on the Framework Directive and states that all obligations also apply to the prevention of risks in relation to mental health in the workplace, including conducting psychosocial risk assessments and taking appropriate prevention measures to reduce work-related stress. In 2018 the SLIC (Committee of Senior Labour Inspectors) published a guide for assessing the quality of risk assessments and risk management measures with regard to prevention of psychosocial risks. The guide offers practical guidance for labour inspectorates on how to address the quality of risk assessments and risk management measures with regard to psychosocial risks based on the requirements of the Framework Directive. The evaluation study of the EU OSH directives (2017) , found that although the Framework Directive has contributed to an increased uptake of OSH management in the EU, it is not always clear what role some of the provisions of the Framework Directive play when more specific implementing provisions have not been developed, especially in the context of changing organisations and technological developments. This finding supported the recommendation to take further action on psychosocial risk management and how this issue should be addressed in OSH directives.
Table 1: Regulatory standards including aspects related to psychosocial risks
|General Safety and Health at Work||Directive 89/391/EEC the European Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work
C155 Occupational Safety and Health Convention (ILO), 1981*
C187 Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention (ILO), 2006*
|Workplace requirements||Directive 89/654/EEC concerning the minimum safety and health requirements for the workplace (first individual directive within the meaning of Article 16 (1) of Directive 89/391/EEC)|
|Display screen equipment||Directive 90/270/EEC on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment (fifth individual Directive within the meaning of Article 16 (1) of Directive 89/391/EEC)|
|Manual handling of loads||Directive 90/269/EEC on the minimum health and safety requirements for the manual handling of loads where there is a risk particularly of back injury to workers (fourth individual Directive within the meaning of Article 16 (1) of Directive 89/391/EEC)|
|Working time||Directive 2003/88/EC concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time (consolidates and repeals Directive 93/104/EC)
C175 Part-time Work Convention (ILO), 1994*
Directive 97/81/EC concerning the framework agreement on part-time work
Directive 99/70/EC concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work
Directive 2000/79/EC concerning the European Agreement on the Organisation of Working Time of Mobile Workers in Civil Aviation.
Directive 2002/15/EC on the organisation of working time of persons performing mobile road transport activities
Directive 91/383/EEC on measures to encourage improvements in workplace safety and health for workers with fixed-term or temporary contracts
|Discrimination – Equal treatment||Directive 2000/43/EC implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin
Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation
Directive 2006/54/EC on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation
|Violence and harassment at work||C190 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work (ILO), 2019*|
|Young people at work||Directive 94/33/EC on the protection of young people at work|
|Maternity and related issues||C 183 Maternity Protection Convention (ILO), 2000*
Directive 92/85/EC on pregnant workers, women who have recently given birth, or are breast-feeding
Directive 2019/1158/EU on work-life balance for parents and carers (repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU)
|Informing and consulting employees||Directive 2002/14/EC establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community
Directive 2009/38/EC on the establishment of a European Works Council or a procedure in Community- scale undertakings and Community-scale groups of undertakings for the purposes of informing and consulting employees (recast)
Directive 2019/1152/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on transparent and predictable working conditions in the European Union
It should be noted here that the level of specificity of the national regulatory OSH frameworks vary substantially between the different EU member states . 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, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Spain) while others highlight that psychosocial risks or mental health do need to be considered as part of OSH (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Slovakia and Sweden). Some Member States (e.g. Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Portugal) specifically include the obligation to carry out a psychosocial risk assessment with a select few advocating the involvement of a psychosocial risk expert (Austria and Belgium).
Research shows that these different approaches on national level are associated with the number of enterprises having a work-related stress action plan. Based on data from ESENER (European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks) a study showed that in those countries with no specific regulations on psychosocial risks, enterprises are less likely to draw up an action plan on work-related stress. Furthermore, the study found an association between work-related stress action plans and reported job resources (such as control/autonomy at work). Therefore, the existence of national level legislation seems to result in more enterprises setting up interventions to address psychosocial risks and increasing job resources. These findings support the argument for more specific legislation on psychosocial risks in the EU. The EU Commission does indicate in its Strategic Framework on health and safety at work 2021-2027 that more needs to be done to tackle psychosocial risks at work. Actions include the modernisation of the legislation framework to digitalisation by reviewing the Workplaces Directive (Directive 89/654/EEC) and the Display Screen Equipment Directive (Directive 90/270/EEC) by 2023 and a non-legislative EU-level initiative related to mental health at work. The European parliament has already called upon the Commission not only to take a non-legislative initiative but also to propose a legislative initiative, in consultation with social partners, on the management of psychosocial risks and well- being at work in order to effectively prevent psychosocial risks in the workplace, including online, provide training for management and workers, periodically assess progress and improve the working environment. EU Trade unions also emphasise the need to issue a Directive on psychosocial risks. The Endstress.eu campaign  launched by Eurocadres with the support of ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) strives for an EU directive to ensure an equal minimum level of protection across the Union, as non-binding tools and resources for employers prove insufficient to reduce psychosocial risks at work.
In the last decades, 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  and corporate social responsibility  . 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 , and harassment and violence at work . 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 .
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  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 . 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 . 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.
The report on the implementation of the framework agreement on work-related stress found that the main activities that followed the signing of the agreement were its translation in national languages and its use as an awareness raising tool. Additional activities mostly took place in countries where there was already high awareness in relation to the issue of work-related stress. Similar conclusions can be made based on the implementation report of the framework agreement on harassment and violence at work although the implementation actions have slightly tended towards less binding activities such as guidance, declarations, translation and dissemination. Two other autonomous agreements concluded by the European social partners are not directly linked to work-related stress but do integrate aspects on psychosocial risk management:
- Framework agreement on active ageing and an inter-generational approach (2017);
- Framework agreement on digitalisation (2020).
Additional examples of voluntary policy approaches in the form of guidance have been developed by EU-OSHA and 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. The E-guide of EU-OSHA on Managing Stress and Psychosocial Risks  gives practical examples on how to prevent and deal with psychosocial risks. Other examples of guidance can be found in the Links for further reading.
Finally, a voluntary initiative that should be mentioned is the publication in 2021 of the ISO 45003 standard Occupational health and safety management - Psychological health and safety at work - Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. The standard is designed to be used by organisations who base their OSH management system (OSH MS) on ISO 45001. ISO 45003 helps organisations to address psychosocial risks and to integrate it into their OSH MS. ISO 45003 emphasises managing organisational risks rather than individual cases. Organisations cannot be awarded a certification based on the standard since it is a guidance document not a 'requirements' standard like ISO 45001 or ISO 9001.
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, psychosocial risks are considered to be more difficult to regulate in comparison with other, more 'traditional', OSH risks. This is due to the particular nature of psychosocial risks who can be categorised by unclear cause-effect relationships and uncertain solutions. OSH legislation is usually based on setting acceptable standards, which can then be used to assess compliance. In many cases, however, it is not possible for regulators and enforcers to set clear threshold values for a safe and healthy psychosocial work environment. Hence, legal requirements on psychosocial risks are often general in nature, with general provisions on duties and processes that make them difficult to apply by enterprises and to control by labour inspectorates. 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 many initiatives have not had the impact anticipated both by experts and policy makers   . On the one hand, there is a common European Framework, and the 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 countries differ in their acknowledgement, awareness and prioritisation of these issues .
As pointed out 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 . 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 . 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 . At the same time, the responsibility for understanding and managing the interface between work, employment and mental health varies greatly across countries . Challenges for governments and regulatory systems are also connected with current trends in the labour market such as outsourcing, digitalisation and the gig economy that make it difficult to ensure the same level of protection for all workers. Platform work for instance is a non-standard form of employment and is not covered by current employment legislation. An EU-OSHA report on digital platform work and OSH found that although most platform workers experience stress due to the nature of their work and the related psychosocial risk factors (e.g. lack of job control and job insecurity), OSH issues in digital platform work remain largely unaddressed by all actors and stakeholders concerned at all levels. An important step forward is the proposal for an EU Directive on platform work (December 2021). The Directive is aimed at ensuring appropriate working conditions, including health and safety, of all people working in platform companies..
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  and EU-OSHA/Eurofound  have found an inconsistency in the use of ‘stress’ and ‘psychosocial risks’. Even though 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, E-guide to managing stress and psychosocial risks. Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Healthy workers, thriving companies - a practical guide to wellbeing at work, 2018. Available at: 
EU Commission. Promoting mental health in the workplace. Guidance to implementing a comprehensive approach. Available at: 
ILO – International Labour Organization, Stress Prevention at Work Checkpoints. Practical improvements for stress prevention in the workplace, 2012. Available at: 
ILO – International Labour Organization, Violence and harassment in the world of work: A guide on Convention No. 190 and Recommendation No. 206, 2021. Available at: 
WHO - World Health Organization, PRIMA-EF : guidance on the European framework for psychosocial risk management : a resource for employer and worker representatives, 2008. Available at: 
ISO 45003 Occupational health and safety management - Psychological health and safety at work - Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Managing psychosocial risks in European micro and small enterprises: Qualitative evidence from the Third European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER 2019). Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention. Report, 2014. Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, The digitalisation of work: psychosocial risk factors and work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Discussion paper, 2021. Available at: 
EU Commission. Evaluation of policy and practice to promote mental health in the workplace in Europe. Report, 2014. Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Psychosocial risks and stress at work 
EU Commission, Social dialogue texts database 
EU Commission, Knowledge for policy. Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway. Work-related stress. 
EU Commission, Mental health 
MHE - Mental Health Europe, Mental health and work 
- Directive 89/391/EEC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. Available at: 
- EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks: Managing safety and health at work, 2010a. Available at: 
- Leka, S., Jain, A., Iavicoli, S., Vartia, M., & Ertel, M., ‘The role of policy for the management of psychosocial risks at the workplace in the European Union’, Safety Science, 49(4), 2011a, pp. 558-564.
- Leka, S., Jain, A., Widerszal-Bazyl, M., Żołnierczyk-Zreda, D., & Zwetsloot, G., ‘Developing a standard for psychosocial risk management: PAS1010’, Safety Science, 49(7), 2011b, pp. 1047-1057.
- European Social Partners, Framework Agreement on Work-related Stress, European social partners -ETUC, UNICE(BUSINESSEUROPE), UEAPME and CEEP, 2004. Available at: 
- Zwetsloot, G., & van Scheppingen, A., ‘Towards a Strategic Business Case for Health Management’, In Johansson, U., Ahonen, G. & Roslander, R. (Eds.) Work Health and Management Control, Thomson Fakta, Stockholm, 2007, pp. 183-213.
- European Commission. Interpretative document on the implementation of Council Directive 89/391/EEC in relation to mental health in the workplace, 2014. Available at: 
- SLIC. Guide for assessing the quality of risk assessments and risk management measures with regard to prevention of psychosocial risks, 2018. Available at: 
- EU Commission, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. Peer Review on Legislation and practical management of psychosocial risks at work. A critical evaluation of the EU policy context. Thematic Discussion Paper written by Stavroula Leka, in collaboration with Sergio Iavicoli and ICF, 2019. Available at: 
- EU-OSHA and Eurofound, Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention. Report, 2014. Available at: 
- Jain, A., Torres, L.D., Teoh, K., Leka, S. The impact of national legislation on psychosocial risks on organisational action plans, psychosocial working conditions, and employee work-related stress in Europe, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 302, 2022. Available at: 
- EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027. Available at: 
- European Parliament resolution of 5 July 2022 on mental health in the digital world of work. Available at: 
- Endstress.eu. Commission action required to tackle psychosocial risks. News, July 5 2022. Available at: 
- Ertel, M., Stilijanow, U., Iavicoli, S., Natali, E., Jain, A., & Leka, S., ‘European social dialogue on psychosocial risks at work: Benefits and challenges, European Journal of Industrial Relations, 16(2), 2010, pp. 169-83.
- EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Corporate Social Responsibility and Safety and Health at Work, 2004. Available at: 
- Jain, A., Leka, S., & Zwetsloot, G., ‘Corporate social responsibility and psychosocial risk management in Europe’, Journal of Business Ethics, 2011,DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-0742-z.
- European Social Partners, Framework Agreement on Harassment and Violence at Work, European social partners - ETUC, BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME and CEEP, 2007. Available at: 
- Eurofound – European Foundation for the improvement of living and working conditions, Autonomous agreement. Available at: 
- Framework agreement on active ageing and an inter-generational approach (2017). Available at: 
- Framework agreement on digitalisation (2020. Available at: 
- ISO 45003 Occupational health and safety management - Psychological health and safety at work - Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. Available at: 
- Jespersen, A. H., Hasle, P., & Nielsen, K. T. The Wicked Character of Psychosocial Risks: Implications for Regulation. Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies, 6(3), 2016, pp. 23–42. Available at: 
- EC – European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions on the practical implementation of the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Directives 89/391 (Framework), 89/654 (Workplaces), 89/655 (Work Equipment), 89/656 (Personal Protective Equipment), 90/269 (Manual Handling of Loads) and 90/270 (Display Screen Equipment). COM/2004/0062 final. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2004. Available at: 
- Levi, L., ‘Working life and mental health – A challenge to psychiatry?’, World Psychiatry, 4(1), 2005, pp. 53-57.
- Iavicoli, S., Natali, E., Deitinger, P., Rondinone, B.M., Ertel, M., Jain, A., & Leka, S., ‘Occupational health and safety policy and psychosocial risks in Europe: the role of stakeholders' perceptions’, Health Policy, 101(1), 2011, pp.87-94.
- EU-OSHA. Digital platform work and occupational safety and health: overview of regulation, policies, practices and research. Report, 2022. Available at: 
- EU Commission. Commission proposals to improve the working conditions of people working through digital labour platforms, 9 December 2021. Available at: 
- EC - European Commission, Report on the implementation of the European social partners’ Framework Agreement on Work-related Stress, SEC (2011) 241 final, Commission staff working paper, 2011. Brussels. Available at: