Minimum health and safety requirements for the protection of mental health in the workplace

Young business woman looking at a computer monitor in an office setting, photo by  Josep Suria/Adobe Stock

Photo by nenetus/Adobe Stock

New and emerging psychosocial risks have been associated with the shift to telework or hybrid work, as well as with digital technologies such as algorithmic management.

What is the issue?

Psychosocial risks in the workplace are recognised as having a profound impact on workers, employers and the economy. Factors such as high workload and work intensity, long working hours and lack of work-life balance, difficult interactions with clients or customers, a lack of support and opportunities for career progression, harassment and bullying have been associated with a range of negative health outcomes, both physical and mental. Exposure to psychosocial risks in the workplace may reduce productivity and increase rates of absenteeism and presenteeism, with associated costs to employers and the wider economy.

The aim of this study is to provide a comparative analysis of legislation regarding psychosocial risks in the workplace and best practices in EU member states, with a view to making recommendations for how the EU can best support member states in this area.

How did we help?

The study had four objectives:

  • To present an overview of the scale and evolution of mental ill-health and psychosocial risks in the workplace, giving special consideration to identifying vulnerable groups of workers and/or sectors
  • To provide an overview of the state of play with regard to relevant legislation in EU member states and to identify good practices
  • To identify the minimum requirements for effective legislation in this area, and the ways in which the national and European levels of legislation can be coordinated effectively
  • To present conclusions and policy recommendations at EU level

The study drew on desk research (literature review, analysis of secondary data), interviews with EU and member state level stakeholders and five country case studies (Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Spain and the Netherlands).

What did we find?

The prevalence of psychosocial risks varies across EU member states and different areas of the labour market. Workers in precarious or non-standard forms of employment, particularly the gig economy, may be particularly exposed to psychosocial risks. New and emerging psychosocial risks have been associated with the shift to telework or hybrid work, as well as with digital technologies such as algorithmic management.

Although EU member states have made progress in addressing this issue through national legislation, strategies and programmes, other countries lag behind, leading to inequality among the European workforce. Across member states, examples of specific good practices can be identified, such as the recognition of burnout as a legitimate medical diagnosis and legislation on the right to disconnect.

There is still room for improvement with regards to national legislation, as well as more practical programmes and measures aimed at addressing psychosocial risks in the workplace. EU member states still lack a unified concept of mental health and psychosocial risks in the workplace. There is also a lack of enforcement and education for employers, as well as a lack of guidelines for occupational health and safety inspectors.

What can be done?

New EU legislation in this area could create greater uniformity across the EU, setting minimum standards and ensuring that legislation covers new and emerging psychosocial risks. A new EU directive on work-related psychosocial risks should:

  • Distinguish between 'psychosocial risks' and 'mental health'
  • Refer to psychosocial risks in concrete and specific terms
  • Address psychosocial risks related to telework and digitalisation of workplaces
  • Recognise the right to disconnect

The legislation should be universally applicable to all workplaces, whatever the sector or size of company. Different sectors and small and medium-sized enterprises can be given additional support through the provision of specific guidelines. Legislation must also be supplemented with support for awareness raising and training.