This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Why stress at work matters

A wave of suicides at France Telecom that shocked France four years ago is back in the headlines. The ILO warns of a rise in mental ill-health due to stress at the workplace.

Analysis | 05 July 2012
GENEVA (ILO News) – A decision by a French judge to place the former head of France Telecom for his alleged role in a wave of staff suicides spotlights an issue that is seldom discussed but has huge implications for the health of workers: stress.

The suicides at France Telecom in 2008 and 2009 coincided with the unfolding global financial crisis and restructuring of the company.

“It will be up to the French court to make a decision on this case,” says Seiji Machida, Director of the ILO’s Safework programme. “However, we here in the ILO think that the crisis has become a factor of concern for the health and safety of workers around the world.”

According to the ILO expert, workers have to deal with the fear and stress of losing their jobs. A reduction in resources allocated to safety and health could make things worse.

A global strategy on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH)
The ILO has developed a number of comprehensive instruments to further its work in the field of OSH. The most recent of these are Convention (No. 187) and Recommendation (No. 197) concerning the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health, 2006.
“We have to invest in a healthy workforce despite the crisis,” Machida says. “Not only because of the human suffering but also because stress comes at a high cost.”

About 35 workers took their own lives, and several of them left notes blaming mental unbearable work pressure. A 2010 government report said the company had ignored advice from doctors about the impact of restructuring policies on employees' mental health.

In most countries, the overall cost of work-related accidents and diseases, including stress-related ones, is still very high. For example, in the European Union it is estimated at 2.6 to 3.8 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Studies also suggest that stress is a factor in between 50 and 60 per cent of all lost working days, a huge cost in terms of both human distress and impaired economic performance.

Enforcement agencies, labour inspectorates and occupational safety and health services may also have to operate with limited resources. “The result could be a sharp rise in work accidents, injuries and fatalities and work-related stress,” Machida warns.

Rise in mental ill-health

While in extreme cases stress can even lead to suicide, the ILO expert warns of a general rise in mental ill-health due to stress at the workplace in Europe and elsewhere.

The reasons for this trend include information overload, intensification of work and time pressure, high demands on mobility and flexibility, being constantly “on call” due to mobile phone technology, and last but not least the worry of losing one’s job.

According to the ILO, the best way to tackle these problems is through strategies adapted to the specific conditions of the workplace in question. The issues in a large plant in an industrialized country, for instance, may be very different from those in a manufacturing facility in a developing country.

“Close collaboration between management and workers is important in finding solutions for workplace safety and health problems. The participation and involvement of workers, their representatives and trade unions is also essential in the prevention of stress at work,” Machida concludes.

He was refering to two new ILO publications: Stress prevention at work checkpoints, a guide to auditing safety and health controls, and SOLVE: Integrating health promotion into workplace OSH policies, a recently-update training package for enterprises which focuses on the prevention of psychosocial risks and the promotion of health and well-being at work.

The financial crisis and its potential impact on safety and health at work

Financial crisis
  • cutting costs
  • decreased public spending
  • decreased production
  • cutting jobs (downsizing)
  • shutting down of some facilities
Organizational changes
  • re-prioritizing resources
  • reduction of "non-productive" functions
  • cutting OSH resources
  • more part-time/temporary work
  • more outsourcing/subcontracting
  • dismissing workers
Compromise in OSH measures
  • loss of OSH professionals in enterprises
  • decline in OSH measures
  • aggravated OSH conditions in informal jobs
  • hazards from overwork/new tasks
  • longer working hours for some
  • more insecurity
  • psychosocial stress from sudden unemployment
Increase in workplace accidents, diseases and fatalities

Increase in ill-health from unemployment