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The role of companies in stress management and work-life balance of their employees

The role of companies in stress management and work-life balance of their employees


Third session in the cycle on 


The role of companies in stress management and work-life balance of their employees


Click here to view a video summary of the event



Dr Francisco Jesús Alvarez Hidalgo

Deputy Head of Unit on Health, Safety and Hygiene at Work, European Commission, 

DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion 


Stephan Atsou

Director Continental Europe from CrossKnowledge



Nicolas Vincent


Responsible for a majority of lost working days in Europe, stress is a major work-related health problem. Like other psychosocial risks, it is dependent on work design, organisation and management as well as social context. These many factors play a major role on stress – and can therefore be acted upon. The eighth session of Policies & Practices shed light on the topic of work-related stress, the state of play and possible involvement of stakeholders to reduce it.


Keynote speakers at the event were Dr Francisco Jesús Alvarez Hidalgo, Deputy Head of Unit on Health, Safety and Hygiene at Work at the Commission’s DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, and Stephan Atsou, Director Continental Europe at CrossKnowledge.


Dr Alvarez Hidalgo opened the session with a stark statement: at the European level, we know “there is a significant problem with stress in the workplace”: around 40% of European workers reckon stress is not well managed in their company; 50% to 60% of absence at work due to ill health is linked to work-related stress. Workers and their family can be deeply affected by stress, which manifests itself through physical and psychosomatic disorders. “In extreme cases,” said Dr Alvarez Hidalgo, “it can lead to burn-out, emotional exhaustion or even suicide”. “For employers,” “stress has an impact on their performance: productivity and competitiveness but also mistakes which can lead to accidents.” As for the society as a whole, the cost of mental health problem amounts to €240 billion each year. Sick leave and presenteism both bear a heavy cost on the welfare state. 


However, Dr Alvarez Hidalgo also presented the silver lining: there are effective strategies and approaches to stress. “Investing in preventing and managing stress in the workplace, and in general in occupational safety and health is effective,” he added, before emphasising that opportunity costs were higher in failing to do so. 


Some tools at the EU level to encourage national action and to disseminate practices


A new European strategy for health and safety at work was adopted in June 2014, for the period 2014-2020. Three main challenges are identified:


-supporting and improving the implementation of health and safety at work in particular in small and micro companies. Unlike bigger companies, they might lack resources and expertise and could require advice on how to invest on the issue;

-improving the prevention of work-related and occupational diseases. In contrast with the previous European strategy which focused more on the prevention of accidents, the framework specifically mentions the impact of work organisation in physical and mental health;

-tackling demographic change. With an ageing population, Europeans will all have to work longer. “Therefore,” continued Dr Alvarez Hidalgo, “we should aim at making working life more sustainable not only to older workers but also to the younger ones who just started on the labour market.”


A specific reference is also made to exchanging and disseminating good practices on mental health. Dr Alvarez Hidalgo mentioned the European Agency for Health and Safety at work (EU-OSHA) which is carrying out a campaign on healthy workplaces with a specific focus for 2014-2015 on the management of stress. The objective of the campaign is to raise awareness about the work-related stress phenomenon and psychosocial risks and convincing employers and workers of the added value of tackling this problem with effective strategies and practical tools.

Finally, Dr Alvarez Hidalgo stressed that, according to studies, holistic approaches dealing with prevention as well as promotion are needed to improve health and safety at work. Research also reveals that for each euro invested in health and safety at work, at least 2 euros are returned through less absenteeism, more productivity, a better image for the company, etc. “At the end of the day,” he concluded, “if we can ensure better working conditions in the context of globalisation and intensive competition, preventing health and safety at work provides also a welcome contribution to a healthy functioning of society as a whole.”


How to fight stress at the workplace? Key takeaways and practices


Following up on the panel, Stephan Atsou, Director Continental Europe from CrossKnowledge, a company specialised in e-learning solutions, explained that his organisation focuses its activities on fighting the circumstances deriving from stress. He added that HR departments are key to implement occupational safety and health policies as they accompany their firm within transformation, they bring value on the current and future strategies, they develop the productivity of the organization and help to bring additional growth. Mr Atsou stated that all CrossKnowledge initiatives to fight stress involve action within the lattest fields, especially if we consider that the four main reasons causing stress to workers are :


1.the lack of recognition

2.the impression their job has no impact or bring no value

3.the impression their job has no purpose

4.the workload


Furthermore, initiatives to fight stress in the company should be as collaborative as possible with all stakeholders involved: workers, unions, HR professionals, management teams, etc. “These actors don’t always agree on the actions to take but at least they collaborate,” said Mr Atsou. The issue is also best addressed in a positive way than in a negative one. For instance, it could be wiser to name a campaign “Improving your wellbeing” rather than calling it “No more stress”.


Mr Atsou introduced a programme launched through a web portal addressing two main key stakes:


1.Employer branding –the company wanted to show it cares for its employees and thus manages to attract a wider workforce in a competitive environment. “Wellbeing is something that appeals to new workers,” said Mr Atsou 

2.Improving the wellbeing of employees with a view to enhancing the company’s performance – here, employees find advice on how to quit smoking, to fight sleeping disorder, to improve their diet, etc. They can also make appointments with experts.


A second project was presented, which involves 40,000 employees on a global scale and seeks to reduce stress through improving methods and skills: better planning, improving the communication at work, managing one’s manager, etc. 


Investing in occupational safety and health is cost-effective


A lively debate followed these key note speeches and focused on the incentives for companies to take actions in the field of stress prevention and management. 


Asked how it was possible to entice SMEs to fight stress at work, Dr Alvarez Hidalgo rose the importance of information: “It is essential to demonstrate that it is a cause worth fighting for, that it is not expensive, it is cost effective and not so difficult to do”. “But the best way,” he added, “is providing practical tools to companies”. 


Mr Atsou added the economic issue was often the best way to persuade managers to fight stress. “Losing people because of burnout or depression is very costly,” he said. SMEs can be more responsive when actions are to be taken. “Teleworking, flexible working hours, part-time work, all these things are nonetheless more likely to be implemented in SMEs than in bigger corporations,” he said.


When asked on adoption rate of these online portals and impact assessment of these programmes, Mr Atsou admitted that they require promotional activities. One major advantage of online courses relies on their discretion: people will not often admit they need or seek help in wellbeing. Once employees are aware of these programmes, they do use them.

As for impact assessment, Mr Atsou admitted that data mining was in large part prevented by data protection. “We rely on the client to provide us the results,” he added, before emphasising that raw data remained at the client’s discretion.


As to why are not more companies working on the topic, “it is a complex issue,” answered 

Dr Alvarez Hidalgo. “Essentially, it is about cultural change.” He continued: “It is about convincing that things can be done in another way, this is difficult. Resistance to change.” It is important to show stakeholders benefits in a practical way. “It is the only way you can conduce to change,” he added, before concluding “it is a matter of involving everybody – not just the management. Workers and their representatives need to be involved.”


Asked whether he felt that wellbeing programmes might be tagged as window dressing, Stephan Atsou said that because of their scale, the involvement of so many bodies in the company, it would be a very expensive way for companies to solely enhance their public image. On the other hand, those programmes cannot be entirely based on pure, economic rationales. It is a combination of both economic and philanthropic reasons, concluded Mr Atsou. 


Reaching the end of the session, both speakers concluded the economic dimension should not become the sole reason to tackle stress in a work environment. It remains nonetheless the most effective way to persuade managers to address the issue and start investing in it.



Tuesday 28 November, 2023





Policies & Practices