Digitisation and psychological stress in the workplace: a neglected aspect of social dialogue?

A seminar on “Digitisation and psychological stress in the workplace: a neglected aspect of social dialogue?”, which was organised by NBH (Nell-Breuning-Haus) with support from EZA and the European Union, took place in Herzogenrath (Germany) from 18 - 21 February 2020.

The seminar was attended by more than 50 representatives of workers’ organizations from Belgium, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania, Germany and Bulgaria. Interestingly, the fact that Lithuanian was offered as a language for the seminar prompted 20 trade unionists from Lithuania to take this opportunity to partake in an international exchange of ideas and participate in the knowledge transfer.

The main aspects

Many companies are “... poorly equipped to face the challenges of digitization...”. In approximately 70 percent of larger firms, time pressures, the associated mental stress and deficits when it comes to obtaining additional qualifications are considered problems that could put the health and future perspectives of employees at risk, according to a WSI analysis. The deficits also seem to have a cumulative effect, as the findings show that working conditions have generally developed in the direction of rising work intensity over the last five years (WSI (Policy Brief - WSI 02/2018).

In 2018, approximately 18 million people in Germany suffered from mental illnesses, which are also due to increasingly stressful work environments. This figure increases to 164 million across Europe. The result: stress and psychosomatic illnesses, and a growing incapacity to work or early retirement. Digitisation plays a large role in this context. Sensory overload from digital media and communication devices at work and home, dependency on tightly-packed, accelerated and digital work processes put excessive stress on the human psyche and lead to illnesses.

Now is an especially important time for this seminar because digitisation and its effect are already well advanced in many sectors. Some current key words are automotive and pharmaceutical industry, medicine, green economy, co-working space, home office, digital nomads, digital surveillance systems, the pressure to be available and missing work-life balance.

Digital remote diagnosis and treatments have become daily occurrences in medical practice. Robots increasingly take on the role of looking after and entertaining people in nursing homes. Full automated car production without human involvement is almost a reality already. Algorithm and AI dominate the scene.

The digital society of the future is characterised by e-residency, e-governance, e-tax, e-medicine, e-learning, e-parliament, e-working, e-currency etc.

At the same time, workplaces are also changing and are no longer tied to just one location. Intelligent technology dominates production, services and logistics. In this dominance, people are only a small part of the so-called value chain. Working conditions are increasingly adjusted to the technology. And we are witnessing the creeping deregulation of the labour market.

Unions and workers’ organizations have trouble keeping up with these rapid developments. Having said that, the development of digitisation in the different EU countries varies widely. It is slower in eastern European countries. At the same time, in some cases there is no awareness at all of mental health and health management.

Topics included the realignment of unions, the status quo of mental stress at the workplace, preventative work design and the corresponding methods in company health management, novel collective agreements that are tailored to digital workplaces, targets for health measures, risk assessments, agile organisations and the risks and opportunities of digitisation.

Sabine Verheyen (MdEP) from Aachen explained that education is key to a digital world. Using seminars and networks, Nell-Breuning-Haus and EZA inform people about the social conditions in the work environment, provide ideas for cross-border exchange and offer the social partners new impulses for a better work environment. The social policies of the European Union need to be supported by civil society in order to achieve uniform and positive social conditions in all EU countries.

Matthias Homey (EZA) discussed the opportunities and risks of a digitised work environment: family and job, health, including workplaces. Digital technology is a tool and should serve the people.

In her presentation “new work - Changes in the work environment”, Helga Jungheim (Ver.di) highlighted the importance of the EU-wide discussion about working and living conditions. Accordingly, it is important that the current standards for good and healthy work are protected and expanded in view of the pressures caused by digital and economic developments. Privacy, free time and family life must be protected from company interference. Agility, flexibility and a change in the way we deal with each other must be designed in a positive manner. Our interactions, our respect for others must be strengthened. The independence of humans from artificial intelligence and algorithms must be guaranteed. Fear of digitisation is not useful and unnecessary. But union actors must examine the issue in detail and must provide concepts more quickly. She also spoke about the first so-called digitisation labour agreements, which were developed by the Ver.di union.

Antonio Brandao Guedes (EZA/CFTL) spoke about the “Digitisation of the work environment and its effects on workers’ health”.

Through digitisation, productivity is greatly increased and the value chain becomes very concentrated. But the profits go to fewer and fewer people. There are more high-level workplaces for well-educated workers. But also more precarious, temporary workplaces that do not require any qualifications. In these workplaces, people become mere tools of algorithms and artificial intelligence. Rising profits and the speed of production mean that people are under considerable pressure to perform, which has a negative effect on mental health. The growing numbers of the pseudo self-employed, who work in the context of platforms, are totally unprotected when it comes to pay scales and health.

Angela Suchan Reinhardt spoke about the “The theory of mental stress at the workplace”. Mental health at the workplace is increasingly at risk due to lack of time, fear, stress, alienation and inadequate communication, whereby stress results from work contents, work organisation, social relationships and the work environment.

In the second part of her presentation, she added aspects of “preventative work design”. In the EU countries, there are a number of different laws designed to protect mental health at the workplace: Luxembourg Declaration 1997 (EU 89/391 EEC), Social Partner Agreement on Stress at the Workplace (EU 2004), DIN Standard 10075 “Definition of mental stress”, labour protection acts, DIN 9241-2 Ergonomics “Human-System Interaction and Mental Stress” are some examples. In Germany, the Labour Protection Act provides for a so-called risk assessment and the relevant questionnaires, which also include a table of measures for the mental risk assessments. Missing assessments are punishable with fines or imprisonment. Other EU countries have similar laws.

Company health management systems must know what workers want: Examples include sports and movement therapy, relaxation measures, family support, workplace optimisation, management training and personal coaching. Health in the company is a process, which can be audited. The organisation or company of the future is a so-called “agile organisation”. It replaces the strictly hierarchical organisation and maintains a holistic focus. Groups or teams work together, exchange ideas and also make important decisions jointly.

Dr. Manfred Körber (NBH) introduced the Project “Work 4.0”. It enables workers to talk about their daily work lives. Using a practical exercise, a group of seminar participants was asked to represent the most important aspects of their everyday work/professional lives in the form of a cube pyramid. The results by importance: 1. Parity and a level playing field. 2. Personal freedom, satisfaction. 3. Security, respect, flexibility. 4. Salary, good work, respect for others, prudence, work climate.

Country reports

Belgium: Higher productivity through digitisation, virtual operations. Transparent taxation should not just be national but also international. Fair taxation of digital income, because workplaces are lost. Reduction and fair distribution of remaining working hours.

Bulgaria: Only unions are talking about safety and health. But digitisation is not happening. First, it is important to create awareness for health protection. There is a national health strategy, but it is not implemented. While there is support for stress management, the same cannot be said for health management. Mental illness is not a hot topic. IT specialists do not care about the issue. They only want high wages.

Lithuania: Stress, psychological violence and bullying do not exist officially. But the reality is very different. 70% of Lithuanians suffer stress due to permanent restructuring. While a law exists, workers do not have access to counselling or their complaints are ignored and they lose their jobs without severance.

Portugal: Example of teachers: 70% of them are tired, exhausted and stressed due to bad working conditions and low wages. They are overwhelmed by the growing digitisation of bureaucracy in their work. Help is not in sight. Nonetheless, teachers are asked to do their jobs and not only practice but also explain the new world of digitisation.

Romania: There are EU directives that were transferred into Romanian law, but they are not implemented. Power is held by companies, and the government looks away. Unions have not modernised; they are backwards and their membership base is in decline. There are IT companies that are highly digitised and also offer health management. Nevertheless, workers at these companies are under a lot of pressure, resulting in high rates of illnesses.

In workshops, the participants developed strategies, action recommendations and demands for works councils, unions, interest associations and policy-makers.

Here are some of the recommendations, demands and strategies in a few key words:

Reduce mental stress, create wellness areas in the company, improve the rhythm of humans and machines, create laws and rules for health prevention and enforce them, control of authorities and management levels, issue regulations for the information flow in a company, transparency in all matters of the company, reduction in working hours, further training, appoint contact persons, solve problems jointly, small measures are the first step, improve person-to-person communication, support from unions, listen to colleagues and take problems seriously, more practical courses for handling the stress that comes with digitisation, work time regulation for home offices, company agreement for the use of smartphones, training for management, uniform European legislation on digitisation at the workplace, more time for each other also at the company, create awareness for collaboration, choose and start strategy, better company physicians and psychologists.


All of the participants have become aware that digitisation also offers an opportunity to create completely new work structures that focus on people, their health and the work-leisure balance. The strategies and recommendations must be implemented now!

It has become clear that the digital developments regarding work environment and health protection vary considerably in the different EU member states.

In this environment, it is even more important that the social partners and workers engage in an exchange.

It also became evident that health prevention, health management and digitisation are not just a matter for companies, legal frameworks and unions. By working together and adopting an attitude of mindfulness and respect, workers can also do their part to improve working conditions or to develop new strategies for good and healthy workplaces, e.g. through a so-called “company suggestion plan”, membership in a union or the establishment of a works council.