Health and safety at work
Health and safety at work are key elements in the sustainability and quality of working life. The European Union has adopted a Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work for the period 2021-2027 (called EU OSH Strategic Framework later) which focuses on three key cross-cutting objectives: anticipating and managing the changes in the new world of work brought about by the green, digital and demographic transitions; improving the prevention of accidents and illnesses in the workplace; and strengthening preparedness for any potential future health crises. At national level, health and safety strategies are often adopted, based on this EU OSH Strategic Framework. It is the case in Cyprus where the Department of Labour Inspection promotes “a workplace safety and health policy for all ages” in the Action Plan joined to the national Health Safety Strategy for the period 2021-2027. AGE members also reported OSH campaigns organised by the EU-OSHA such as in Romania with the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign from 2020 to 2022 aiming to highlight the significance of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) to employers and employees, or the promotion in rural areas of OSH measures with caravans to address specific risk factors identified in farms for instance.
Health and safety at work in the European Union
In 1989, the European Union adopted the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Framework directive which “lays down the main principles to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers. It guarantees minimum safety and health requirements throughout the European Union while Member States are allowed to maintain or establish more stringent measures”. Since then, many directives focusing on specific aspects of safety and health at work have been adopted. They are supplemented by strategic documents such as Strategic Frameworks on health and safety at work which define the key objectives and key actions to implement in these areas. The one in effect today is the EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work for the period 2021-2027.
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) plays a role alongside the EU OSH Strategic Framework. The agency aims to disseminate information, offer guidance and promote healthy and safe working environments, by raising awareness through campaigns and social dialogue. The agency is based in Bilbao, Spain and is composed of members of the European Commission, Member States’ representatives, workers’ representatives, and employers’ representatives.
The current EU OSH Strategic Framework highlights demographic change and the ageing of the workforce as an element that “requires continuous reflection and response”. It also refers to the Green Paper on Ageing as a starting point for a debate that includes a discussion on the conditions for the participation of older workers in the labour market. Indeed, today’s working environment is not designed and thought through for long-term careers and work in older age. In 2012, Eurostat figures showed that among people aged 50 to 69 who were economically inactive and receiving a pension for having stopped working, 20.9% of them were in this situation due to their state of health or disability. In addition, the 2020 figures show an increase with age in the percentage of people reporting a work-related health problem, while 43.1% of 55-64 year-olds say they have been exposed to risk factors likely to affect their mental well-being. These figures highlight how difficult it is for workers to continue working as they age because of poor working conditions that affect their health. Yet, according to the Eurofound report “Extending working life: What do workers want?” many workers are in favour of extending their working lives, for example by adopting other measures that offer certain working conditions conducive to a longer working life. It is urgent to adopt a more flexible life–course approach to support healthy work in late career and sustainability of the workforce.
However, some jobs have a greater impact on health. For the employees concerned, provision should be made for the possibility of changing jobs mid-career in order to benefit from less physically strenuous work. Some members reported that initiatives were in place in this regard at national level. In France for instance, the Compte professionnel de prévention (C2P) allows a worker exposed to factors related to the rhythm of work or to an aggressive physical environment to cumulate points giving access to training for jobs that are less or not exposed to occupational risk factors, to benefit from part-time work without loss of salary, or to validate quarters of increased old-age insurance duration and to allow for earlier retirement. In Norway, the Working Environment Act provides that “an employee who has reached the age of 62 or who for health, social or other weighty welfare reasons, shall have the right to a reduction of his or her normal working hours if the reduction of working hours can be arranged without major inconvenience to the undertaking”.
Finally, healthy and safe working environments should take all age groups into account and understand older workers in their diversity as they are not a homogeneous group. Adopting an intersectional approach in measures addressing ageing at work and in health and safety strategies is crucial. At national level, some initiatives try to focus on this diversity angle such as The Lombardy Workplace Health Promotion Network, an Italian collaborative approach to health promotion and sustainable employability for companies and employees, encouraging employees from different socio-economic backgrounds to participate in health activities.
Recognition and adaptation of workplaces to specific needs: the case of menopause
Most women will go through menopause transition during their working lives. On average, women experience menopause around the age of fifty. Among the most common and challenging symptoms, women report physical symptoms such as hot flushes, but above all psychological symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, nervousness and memory problems. They are not identical or of the same intensity for all women and they can last for many years.
The majority of women will experience them during their working years and their work may be disrupted as a result. Some even stop working. As an employer, to continue to retain and attract female talent, it is important to address menopause as a health issue.
The first challenge in understanding menopause at work is to break the taboo surrounding the subject which is not confined to the workplace but exists at all levels of society. On a global scale, campaigns should be run on the subject to encourage an open, honest and informative dialogue. In the workplace, employers should create a culture where everyone knows what menopause is and allows women to talk about it if they want or need to.
Stigma is another aspect of menopause which can potentially lead to a whole series of negative discriminatory behaviours. To remedy this, employers need to adopt a menopause policy that recognises the impact of menopause in the workplace and offer training and education for employers and employees allowing an open dialogue and putting an end to the taboo and stigma.
Finally, physical adaptations should be implemented in the workplace to facilitate women’s well-being at work. To best meet their needs, a dialogue and regular consultations should be established with women employees. Adaptations should include better flexibility of working time and place, and access to counseling services for employees concerned.
Mental health and psychosocial risks among older workers
Mental health is another aspect to consider while talking about the health of workers over their life–course, including in old age. Several factors are at the root of psychosocial risks among older workers such as ageist attitudes which can cause a significant impact on older people’s self-esteem and mental health. The fast-changing working environment, if not accompanied by adequate training, can also lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. The fact that older workers are not supported at the end of their careers and the resulting uncertainty, or the fear of losing one’s job knowing that it will be more difficult to find a new one afterwards, can also be sources of bad mental health at work. Finally, ordinary restlessness and the failure to adapt workplaces to individual needs can also explain why older workers experience stress at work. AGE members reported inspiring initiatives at national level that address the specific challenge of well-being at work. In Finland, for instance, the Kunta10-study focuses on municipal staff in several cities to measure specific changes’ impact on staff health and well-being. The data from this first study will be used to develop management projects to ensure the well-being of all employees throughout their careers. In Portugal, the government provides companies, employers and employees with information leaflets that address the factors leading to psychosocial risks. However, AGE members do not have recorded specific measures or initiatives addressing the mental health of older workers.
At European level, the EU OSH Strategic Framework addresses the challenge of psychosocial risks at work. The European Commission also adopted a comprehensive approach to mental health in Europe which plans to ensure good mental health at work by raising awareness and improving prevention. Although it does not mention the specific challenges faced by older workers, the Commission recognises the importance of combating inequality and discrimination through intersectionality in society and appropriate support, particularly for people in vulnerable situations, including older people.
The balance between professional and personal life plays a critical role in the well-being and mental health of older workers. The specific case of informal carers illustrates its importance as many working carers need to either decrease or leave paid work to balance work and care. Indeed, most of the informal carers are still of working age and have to cope with carers’ duties and consequently might struggle to stay in employment. It is important to stress that a large majority of informal carers are women among whom many are in middle and late middle age, thus contributing to the gender employment gap. According to the World Health Organization, on average, 70% of unpaid informal carers are women and “the gender imbalance is greatest at ages 50–64 years when caregiving prevalence is highest.”
Demographic change and the policies to maintain people in their homes for as “long as possible” mean that informal care will be a reality for more and more people in the years to come. To ensure sustainable employment under these conditions, we need to enable informal carers to care without having to leave the labour market. This is one of the aims of the 2019 European work-life balance directive (WLB directive) (2019/1158). The WLB directive lays down minimum requirements designed to better support a work-life balance for parents and carers, encourage a more equal sharing of parental leave between men and women, and address women’s underrepresentation in the labour market.
The WLB directive requires that all workers providing personal care or support to a relative or person living in the same household have the right to at least five working days of carers’ leave per year. It is important to note that the duration of five days of leave per year is a minimum requirement : Member States may increase the number of days. Indeed, five days is certainly too short for regular care and even too short to coordinate emergency care in case of an acute development. According to the study conducted by Reed Smith, prepared at the request of the Social Platform (January 2023), all Member States have a regime in line with the directive regarding carers’ leave duration, except for Belgium which does not respect the minimum requirement of five days. Some Member States, such as France or Greece, have taken advantage of the possibility to render the carer’s leave subject conditions based on the type of relationship between the carer and the beneficiary or the length of time the carer has been in employment.
The WLB directive also states that all carers have the right to request reduced working hours, flexible working hours, and flexibility in the place of work. Although flexibility allows older workers to stay longer in the labour market, creating income and productive input to society, the study requested by the Social Platform highlights that Member States do not have transposed equally the directive. Indeed, some Member States, such as Cyprus or Sweden, make the right to request flexible working arrangements conditional upon a period of work qualification, for instance.
It is worth noting that the WLB directive does not require Member States to provide income support or other compensation to informal carers who do reduce their working hours, nor does it provide for other supporting services (such as respite care or daycare). The EU Care Strategy tries to fill this legislative gap, but does it only in the form of Council Recommendations, demanding voluntary measures by Member States. In addition to national legislation, collective agreements can also play an important role by involving the social partners and negotiating as closely as possible to local needs, the specific features of the sector and employees’ constraints.
In the absence of rights to sufficient time off, income support and support services, it is more likely that informal carers drop out of the labour market entirely, eventually using minimum income schemes or unemployment benefits, or that they reduce their working hours permanently by changing their contract or employer, without a right to return to full time once the need to provide informal care disappears.
The impact of new technologies and digitalization on work
The EU OSH Strategic Framework also focus on the opportunities that new technologies and digital tools can provide to workers at all stages of their careers. It states that digital solutions with accessible tools can be supportive of the health and well-being of workers with disabilities and older workers, and improve the work-life balance for men and women. The use of new technologies is already considered in that sense in some Member States. In Poland for instance, AGE members reported that the 2023-2025 National Programme for the Improvement of safety and working conditions, has set the objective to use digital technologies to monitor working conditions as well as to study the risks associated with new forms of work and their prevention.
Telework is a good example of a tool that revolutionised the daily face of work and supports employees with care duties for instance or older workers who might prefer working from home to commuting. However, telework should not be an obligation, and legislation must clarify respective rights and obligations between employer and employee. Many Member States have adopted legislation on this such as the Italian legal system which has adopted a regulatory framework on smart working allowing employees to perform their work duties from anywhere and at any time.
Nonetheless, new technologies and digitalisation raise several challenges such as a clear risk of exclusion for some people. In the case of older people, they might be less skilled digitally because of their limited access to education and lifelong learning due to an outdated consideration of the life-course approach and ageism, including internalised ageism. Yet, the speed of change in the digital technology sector should alert us to the need to strengthen the digital literacy of younger generations as well and adopt a lifelong learning approach. When the support is adequately provided, we create opportunities for people of all ages to gain new skills at work or embrace career change, and even give the opportunity to pensioners who would like to stay active in the labour market. The EU OSH Strategic Framework itself recognizes the importance to develop the “needs and capacities of an ageing workforce [and] requires further relevant legislative updates”.
Finally, to prevent the digital divide from widening, investment in assistive technologies for older workers with disabilities is a priority and must take into account the accessibility of new technologies in the work environment. We also need to adopt an intersectional approach when tackling digital education and the digital gap, creating opportunities for people who live in rural areas with poor broadband access (availability), or for people who are not in a financial position to afford expensive technical equipment (affordability), for instance. In Hungary, the initiative called “The Hello IT! for Women” is a digital skills programme supporting women by offering free online courses for women of all ages.
All AGE’s recommendations about workplaces for all ages can be found in the Barometer and in the one-pager, which you can both download below.
Policy Officer on Employment and European Parliament Liaison
Sarah is in charge of AGE’s policy activities in the fields of employment, participation and active citizenship in old age. She also monitors EU initiatives on volunteering for older people and lifelong learning. She is responsible for the Task Force dedicated to on Employment, participation and active citizenship. Sarah also coordinates AGE’s relations with the European Parliament (EP).