Health management at the workplace: shaping working conditions for women in a healthy way

Organized by AFB (Arbeiter-, Freizeit- und Bildungsverein) in collaboration with the European Center for Workers' Issues (EZA) an with the support of the European Union, the International Conference of the IPEO Platform on the topic of “Health management at the workplace: shaping working conditions for women in a healthy way” was held in Brixen/Bressanone on 22 and 23 September 2017 and welcomed about forty participants from South Tyrol / Italy, Austria, Lithuania and Serbia.

The focus was primarily on jobs in the service, social (care, education), healthcare and school sectors. The IPEO calls for the launch of a new common effort, together with national and European trade unions, to achieve better working conditions for women by improving organizational aspects, labour law, health protection and social rights. Legislation and collective agreements should show more attention and appreciation for the socially indispensable work of women.

In all European countries, social, health and education professions are dominated by women. In public and private organizations, from hospitals and clinics to nursing homes, care facilities and day care services, women provide assistance and support to sick and needy people. In children's day-care centres, kindergartens and schools, women lay the foundation for a successful learning and socialization process that supports the growth of the young generations.

The high number of women in certain social professions (vertical segregation) and the small number of women among executives (horizontal segregation) are main contributing factors to the unfair treatment of women on the labour market. In addition, it is typically women who decide to stop their professional career or to switch to a part-time job to take care of their family. Very few companies offer suitably flexible working time schedules. Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis, work- related stress due to demanding performance targets, tight deadlines and responsibilities has increased. The weakening of social protection and the deregulation of the labour market have resulted in worse working conditions. Obviously the workload increased - to the detriment of the workers.

So far, individual and corporate health management measures have not been effective and broad enough to create healthier working conditions. The responsibility for this lies primarily with businesses and their managers, as, in general, they tend to neglect health issues when carrying out risk assessments, focusing solely on the technical aspects of safety instead. The way corporate leaders act and behave has a bearing both on the organization of work and the corporate climate and, consequently, it is of crucial importance for the health of employees.

The trend towards overworking and short-term profit maximization, which is typical of the so-called neoliberal social and economic models, is reflected in the surveys of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. In recent years, country-specific studies have revealed a remarkable increase in psychological stress (depression, fatigue, and burnout). In Europe, respondents participating in the 6th EWCS survey by Eurofound (2015) reported that employees were commonly suffering from back pain (42.8%), muscle pain in the shoulders, neck and upper limbs (36.3%), headache and sore eyes (36,3%), exhaustion (35.9), muscle pain in the lower limbs (28.8%), anxiety (15.6%).

The representatives of EZA member organizations call on policy-makers, social partners and research institutions to further investigate these issues. For the purposes of individual and collective health management, the following measures are suggested:

  1. In determining the appropriate remuneration for women working in the social, healthcare and education professions, collective agreements should consider the social importance of said jobs. Further education and career opportunities for women should be expanded.
  2. More harmonised training standards in the social professions could create more career transition opportunities. The right to sabbaticals (of varying duration) for the purpose of psycho-physical recovery secures consistent working ability over a longer period of time. Long-term employees should be offered a career perspective including job rotation and progression, appropriate forms of training and part-time work as they grow older. The consequences of psychological stress are often a cause of early retirement and should be recognized as such following the example of early retirement arrangements for heavy duty workers.
  3. To ensure the quality of care provision while easing the pressure on the providers which stems from the increased need for care and assistance of the population, standards of care should be introduced and reconsidered for the health and care professions. In this regard, mandatory guidelines should be introduced also for care providers in private facilities; such guidelines could be included in collective agreements.
  4. In kindergartens and schools the integration of immigrant children requires new standards of education, assistance and teaching. More staff is needed and plans for additional structures have to be worked out.
  5. Flexible working-time is an important building block to improve both employee work satisfaction and work-life balance. Particularly in private companies and in non-profit organizations working in the social field, temporary employment contracts are often used which provide little flexibility against inadequate wages or poor social protection. Adjustments are required. Also rules for shift work must be reconsidered in order to prevent work overload on the one hand and to provide the necessary flexibility on the other.
  6. To gain more recognition at work, health and social care providers should expand their participation rights and rigid hierarchies should be replaced by working relationships based on participatory processes.
  7. The overrepresentation of women in certain professions has an adverse effect on their wage level and career opportunities. In this case, already announced programmes for the equal treatment of women and men doing the same job must be put in place.
  8. When investigating occupational stress factors, the focus is primarily on traditional ‘men's jobs’ and on easily measurable cause-effect mechanisms. Not enough attention is currently paid to psychological stress factors, especially those in the so-called ‘women's professions’, which remain inadequately described and classified. That should be addressed in new studies and research on labour issues.
  9. Greater attention should be paid to gender differences in medicine, starting with training. That would allow identifying the occupational health risks of women in a more accurate way and appropriate measures could be taken in a more targeted manner.
  10. Improving work motivation and measures to overcome the traditional separation between female and male jobs are indispensable to remedy the negative consequences of vertical segregation especially in the education, school and care sectors.
  11. Changes in society and family structure call for a reassessment of working conditions, labour regulations and the functions of social partners.