The World of Work 2020 – recommendations for action for preventive health promotion for workers of all ages in companies

In the current working world and also in the coming phase of progressive digitalization, apart from individual factors, mainly those related to the workplace, lead to excessive demands and associated vegetative stress symptoms, which increasingly lead to burnout symptoms and consequently to serious illnesses.

In our seminar on "The World of Work 2020 – recommendations for action for preventive health promotion for workers of all ages in companies", which took place from September 20th to September 22th 2017 in Tallinn, Estonia, 22 participants and 3 keynote speakers from Estonia, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Portugal gathered ideas and concepts in order to develop recommendations for action for social dialogue.

Digitisation, the so-called Industry 4.0, the so-called Internet of Things, has long since arrived in business life. Major restructuring is currently taking place in the companies so as not to miss out on these developments... both in Europe and worldwide. At the same time, digitisation has also gained a foothold in private life. World-wide web, digital platforms for buying and selling, dealing with the authorities, scheduling, correspondence and the ubiquitous use of smartphones determine the scene. So it appears to have been accepted. Of course, this is only the beginning. Over the next 20 years, today's information society will have transformed into a pure digital society and will permeate everyday life. E-residency, e-governance, e-tax, e-medicine, e-learning, e-parliament, e-working, e-currency, cloud-systems are just a few words of this new era. This is therefore a paradigm shift.

Today, people already have to work in a more available and flexible way. And due to the digital possibilities used, the working and private worlds are almost impossible to separate. The time has now come for the social partners of the various employee organisations from all areas of social life to create an awareness - also for themselves - that takes this paradigm shift into account. Through new concepts, ideas and strategies that establish preventive health promotion in the workplace for all working people as a priority for social dialogue. After all, the digitisation of the working world also offers the opportunity to rethink work and health.

In his presentation, Imre Mürk (Tallinn University of Technology) presented the future of the world of work in 2020. The digitised working world is already a reality and reaches far beyond the workplace into people's private and social life. The new risks arise from new types of jobs and occupational fields. For example, nanotechnology, industry 4.0, digital economy, robotics, new career paths and adapted work structures and organizations. Estonia is a good example of private and social digitisation. Here, not only the parliament and the government can be elected online at the push of a button. Payments, administrative procedures, tax returns or calling and paying a taxi can and are also done digitally via the Internet or smartphone. And the Estonian Constitution enshrines the right to digitisation. Thus the world of work, social togetherness and private life can hardly be separated. For example, professional emails are also answered after the end of work. Or the workplace is partly outsourced to private rooms to work there - digitally.

The pressure on employees is growing, because the employer doesn't care where they work in a digital world. His maxim is: The work is to be done. But also in modern industrial companies, such as in the automotive, food or aviation industries, and in many service and media companies, digitisation is partly a reality.

In her presentation, Dr. Karin Pärnpuuu (Chief Physician of Tallink Group AG Tallinn) presented the health aspects of digitisation in the working world in 2020.

In Estonia, two out of ten patients report depression. The others deny a connection between their physical and mental complaints and possible depression. In Estonia, it is taboo to talk about and accept illnesses, including mental illnesses. It is planned to include psychological risk factors at the workplace in appropriate laws. However, it will not be so easy to detect psychosocial illnesses through work. In this aspect, Estonia is at the very beginning.

Telework is also a factor in Estonia. People work digitally at home. Alone and at your own pace. Tasks are specified and must be completed. Somehow. But because humans are not lone wolves, this situation causes stress. If the exchange vis à vis with colleagues is missing, there is also no support from them. It's missing from the lonely digital work. If stress is combined with dissatisfaction with the workplace, this can lead to illness in the long run.

Unfortunately, digitisation makes it almost impossible to talk about problems at the workplace with the employer. He may be in Estonia, but the employee in Spain is in front of their digital workplace. So, only the trip to the doctor with their numerous therapy possibilities remains. But the individual, affected person must also want this.

Naturally, work-life-balance is of particular importance. This also includes people's eating habits. This changes negatively due to stress. Wrong food - mostly industrially produced - leads to overweight with many secondary diseases. Salutogenesis is an effective remedy for this. Sport, good food, a friendly social environment and a healthy lifestyle are keywords here.

In his presentation Dr. Manfred Böhm (Employee Pastoral / Corporate Chaplaincy Bamberg) focuses on the power of algorithms - where is the human being in the center of his consideration? It highlights social-ethical aspects in social dialogue and impulses for trade unions, works councils and Christian employee representatives.

Digitisation is not about a fully automatic factory, but about self-thinking, self-organising value chains. The procedures and work processes are transferred to a system. And this is a paradigm shift.

But it is particularly important to see this view from the human side. The humanisation of the world of work will continue to be of great importance in the future. Of course, there is also humanisation in digitisation. For example, work simplifications, time savings. But it's not going to happen on its own. If nothing is done for more humane jobs, the level of exploitation and self-exploitation will be perfected.

In this new man-machine interaction, man must not be an assistant to the machine. Because these new "machines" optimize themselves independently and work in real time. Without human intervention, based only on algorithms.

The major challenges for the trade unions are the following:

1. Increasingly, permanent employment contracts are being converted into part-time work with flexible working hours. This is the so-called hiring on demand.

2. Increasing productivity reduces the total volume of gainful employment.

3. The division of labour, the reduction of working hours in order to prevent increasing unemployment.

Due to the comprehensive digitisation of the working and private world, it is important to maintain the right to privacy and self-determination in automated processes. And in Catholic social teaching, there is the principle: work and the dignity of work take precedence over capital, and work exists for the people.

The digital and technical possibilities fascinate people so much that they integrate their free time into this system with the promise and the call to be responsible for their own health and work-life-balance. And for the right balance between work and rest, between leisure and professional activity. The so-called "self-care". Thus work is positively charged. It can already be seen today that the tendency to freedom of self-exploitation is increasing.

Unfortunately, the question never arises as to whether this self-exploitation consists in the erroneous belief that it is a way of realizing oneself. The health insurance companies also call this: The interested self-endangerment through experiences of success; I realise and optimise myself to death.

A new magic word is resilience. Strengthen insensitivity, strengthen individual resistance against this self-endangerment. But even this can be abused. Concepts are currently circulating in the economic think tanks that aim to increase its resilience under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism by strengthening human resilience.

The Estonian group reports on the state of affairs in Estonia, where a lot of work is being done. Sometimes too much. Many people have several jobs. And everyone wants to succeed. People who are not so successful remain isolated from friends and society. This puts a lot of pressure on people and they take all kinds of risks, including depression.

Estonian trade unions have recognised the link between work and depression. However, because this disorder is not recognised as an occupational disease, they have paid little attention to this issue so far. They see themselves more as fighters for higher wages and shorter working hours. But gradually they also realize that mental problems in the workplace are an issue.

The Belgian group reports that over the last 12 years the long-term illnesses caused by burnout have tripled. Since 2007, there has been anti-bullying legislation in Belgium that also takes burnout into account. In 2014, the law was also revised with the help of the trade unions. Since then, even more emphasis has been placed on the prevention of burnout. Employers are increasingly obliged to develop strategies and procedures to better deal with this topic in their companies and to prepare risk analyses on the topic. This results in special questionnaires for occupational health professionals and more stringent controls.

The German group reports on the status quo in Germany. Longer working hours without pay, higher sickness rates force people to deal with the topic of mental illness through work. Politicians have been trying for years to trim the digital infrastructure in Germany to world standards. Of course, this is not about preventive health measures at digital workplaces. An estimated 12 million people in Germany are at risk of mental illness. Over the last 10 years, this has led to a 50% increase in sick leave notifications. Trade unions are increasingly interviewing companies to find out about psychosocial burdens. Although many different industries in Germany are relying on the effects of digitisation and are converting accordingly. However, this paradigm shift has not yet really reached the social partners.

In their working groups, three groups (Estonian, French, German) then have the task of discussing the topic and drawing up recommendations for action.

Workgroup results

The Estonian group

The respective problem of digitisation must be identified. Especially when the technical possibilities are fascinating and the downsides are often suppressed. Creating awareness! It is not yet seen that the human being must be at the centre of everything. Employers and workers should therefore discuss together how digitisation and robotics can support people without replacing them or exploiting, incapacitating and destroying the dignity of human work. It must be made clear that the machine is only a tool and that man is the most important thing there is - even if the opposite is often claimed.

The French group

Jobs are being lost. The work rhythm is changing. But productivity is increasing. A reduction in working hours is therefore the method of choice. In companies, for example, collective bargaining can be used to demand so-called small-scale full-time work - i.e. the compensation of the intensity and digitisation profits achieved to date in favour of the employees. However, it is also important to raise awareness that private voluntary work in the private sector often leads to self-exploitation.

The German group

The trade unions and works councils must carry out intensive surveys in the companies. How do employees feel about their digital work and their workplace? How are they organized? One needs meaningful information. Trade unions and works councils need to focus more on the subject of the digitised world of work. It is important to acquire social competence in order to decouple the digital world, working hours and leisure time. By changing activities into highly qualified and well-paid, and poorly qualified and paid areas, it can lead to a division of the company.


For the organizers of this seminar, the realisation that the digitisation of the working world also offers opportunities to create new, safe and healthy working structures and a new social coexistence, has matured. Provided the dangers in this paradigm shift are recognised and prevented.

"We as actors from the trade unions, workers' organisations, secular and Christian educational institutions, the workers' movement, the organisers and company pastoral care are part of the solution" for the preventive health promotion of all employees of all age groups in a company. This finding helps to develop new ways and models for health promotion and to make them a real focus within the concepts of collective bargaining, for example.

Another important finding: digitisation in the world of work as a paradigm shift is seen as an opportunity to develop completely new working conditions and preventive health protection measures. However, this must happen now. Also in the hearts, thoughts and actions of people who have responsibility in social partnerships and social dialogue. And among the working people, some of whom are still sceptical and negative about this development.



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