Work-related stress: what impact in the public services?

28 April 2016
Rosa Pavanelli
Today (28 April) is the "World Day for Safety and Health at Work". In the following interview with ACTRAV/ILO, the General Secretary of Public Services International (PSI), Rosa Pavanelli, explains how workers in the public services are affected by stress.

ACTRAV INFO: This year, “Workplace Stress: a collective challenge”  is the theme of the ILO report for the World Day for Safety and Health at Work. How are workers in the public services affected by stress?

Rosa Pavanelli:
There are different causes of stress to which public sectors workers are exposed. The most common cause is the progressive staff reduction that affects all the sectors of public services. Austerity policies, the “private is better” dogma and cuts in public spending have dramatically reduced the number of workers in all public services. This is putting pressure on workers who have to do more with less.

The ideology of privatization and competition is putting emphasis on the quantity of services delivery and budgets rather than quality, therefore making the future uncertain for many workers. Politicians and policy makers should already know that the business-oriented approach and the invest-1-dollar-to-make-2 mantra does not work for public services, which need to be of quality and universal for all.

Another reason is that the character of the most important sectors, such as health and social care, education, emergency and security services, is highly labour intensive and entails personal relations, including physical contact, with users. This is a fundamental factor of stress, often leading to mental health diseases and burn-out for many professions in public services, (e.g. nurses, doctors, firefighters, teachers, carers, prison guards, also labour and tax inspectors). The responsibility for human lives is also an important stress- related cause often ignored by employers and users as well.

And last but not least, third party violence to which public services workers are subject more than in other industrial sectors.

ACTRAV INFO: What is the impact of stress in the public services?

The most common impact of stress in public services is lack of motivation and pride in their mission for the workers and an evident impact on the quality of services provided to people and the community. In health and social care, as well as in all the emergency and first response services in case of disasters and epidemic, the permanent contact with suffering, and the responsibility for responding to urgency is often cause for depression and burn-out. Moreover, public services workers are often affected by dangerous working conditions that put their lives at risk to save others’ lives and the feeling of permanent insecurity is an evident stress factor.

ACTRAV INFO: How are trade unions giving support to workers to combat work-related stress in the public services?

Trade unions support workers against work-related stress first by fighting to get full recognition of workers’ right to collective bargaining on training, working conditions, prevention of accidents and diseases and on occupational Safety and Health. Secondly, by lobbying governments to stop cutting public spending and investing in quality public services instead. Thirdly, by trying to involve users, citizens and the community to recognize and appreciate the fundamental role of public services workers in protecting people and the environment, in serving the general interest instead of profit, in defending everybody’s wellbeing. In short, to recognize the value of public services workers as the producers of fundamental human rights. This is crucial to strengthen workers’ self-esteem and consciousness of the social value of their work.

ACTRAV INFO: How can the ILO work with trade unions on the prevention and management of work-related stress?

Implementation of the existing labour protection regulations and standards is crucial. Recognition of workers’ right to organize and collective bargaining in all sectors, including all the public ones, is the first step for a healthy and stress-free working environment.

Addressing all stress-related factors is also fundamental and in this regard the review of the Employment (Transition from War to Peace) Recommendation, No. 71 , offers an opportunity for the ILO to address some of these issues, at least in those situations. But these rights and protections should also extend to other workers as well, for instance those engaged in emergency activities, and we need ILO standards and public policies and legislation for them, not private initiatives that will dismantle the OSH regulations already in place. Also, by supporting the role of public service workers in achieving the SDGs and investing in public services instead of cutting funding.


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