Definitions and scope of application
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Psychosocial risks at work are defined as the probability that one or more workers will experience psychological harm, which may be accompanied by physical harm, following exposure to parts of the work organisation, the content of the work, working conditions, living conditions at work and interpersonal relations at work, on which the employer has an impact and which objectively pose a danger.
Psychological harm may include anxiety, depression or even suicidal thoughts.
At a physical level, these risks may lead to problems with sleep, high blood pressure, palpitations, gastric or intestinal problems, etc.
These risks may also have negative consequences for the entire company, for example through a negative climate at work, conflicts, additional costs due to occupational accidents, absenteeism, or a reduction in the quality of work or in productivity.
The best-known manifestations of psychosocial risks at work are stress, burnout, work-related conflicts, violence, and moral or sexual harassment at work.
Psychosocial risks are complex because they can have many origins and the dangers can exist at several levels:
- organisation of the work : this particularly includes the organisational structure (horizontal-vertical), the way in which tasks are distributed, work procedures, management tools, management style, and the general policies implemented in the company.
- content of the work : this involves the tasks of the worker. This category includes everything relating to the complexity and variety of tasks, the emotional demands (relationship with the public, contact with suffering, etc.), the mental burden (linked to the difficulty of the task, among other things), the physical burden and the clarity of the tasks.
- working conditions : this is everything linked to the modalities for the implementation of the working relationship, including the types of contract and schedule (night work, shift-work, unusual hours, etc.), the possibilities for learning, career management and evaluation procedures.
- living conditions at work : this covers the physical environment in which the work is carried out: the layout of the workspaces, the work equipment, noise, lighting, the substances used, working positions, etc.
- interpersonal relations at work : this covers internal relations (between workers, with the line manager, the reporting line, etc.) as well as relations with third parties, possibilities for contact, and communication. The quality of the relations is also considered (cooperation, integration, etc.).
When talking about psychosocial risks at work, it is important to include situations that contain a danger from an objective viewpoint: the subjective experience of the individual worker is not decisive.
The danger is objective when it may harm the physical health (with the potential addition of physical damage) of any normal worker placed in the same circumstances.
If the situation can be considered normal, the employer cannot be held responsible for the worker's suffering.
Furthermore, psychosocial risks at work only involve elements on which the employer has an impact. The employer must therefore be able to act on the danger and the factors that can contribute to the occurrence of the harm.
For example, the employer has no impact on the cause of a relationship problem between workers that relates to their private life or on the unusual personality of a worker.
In another example, the employer can also not impact the fact that their workers experience an emotional charge when they are working in the ambulance service or fire brigade. The employer cannot remove this emotional charge as it is inherent in the content of the work. However, they must take measures to avoid workers suffering harm, via debriefings and training for example.
Violence at work is defined as any situation in which a person is mentally or physically threatened or attacked while carrying out their work.
Violence takes the form of point-in-time behaviour that contains a threat of physical violence, physical assault (e.g. direct blows), verbal threat or verbal assault (insults, humiliating or demeaning words, groundless accusations of serious acts, etc.).
Sexual harassment at work is defined as any undesired verbal, non-verbal or bodily behaviour with a sexual connotation whose effect is to harm the dignity of the person or create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Sexual harassment at work may take different forms and be physical or verbal:
- insistent or suggestive looks;
- ambiguous comments or insinuations;
- display of pornographic material (photos, text, videos, etc.);
- compromising proposals;
Moral harassment at work is defined as an abusive series of:
- multiple similar or divergent behaviours;
- external or internal to the company or institution;
- that occur during a certain period;
- during the performance of the work;
and whose aim or effect is:
- to harm the personality, dignity or physical or mental integrity of a person;
- to endanger his employment;
- or to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
These behaviours mainly take the form of words, threats, acts, gestures or one-sided notes.
The elements that constitute harassment are the unlawful nature of the series of behaviours, the repetition of the behaviours over time and their consequences.
So, it is the unlawful nature of the series of behaviours that is taken into account. Even if these behaviours may be insignificant when taken individually, their build-up harms the personality, dignity or physical or mental integrity of a person.
It is not necessarily the same behaviour repeated. It is enough for the behaviours - even if they are of different types - to occur over a certain period.
The perpetrator does not necessarily need to have acted intentionally. It is enough for their behaviour to have an impact on a person, even if the perpetrator did not want these consequences.
Moral harassment at work may take different forms:
- isolating the person
- by ignoring them and by no longer talking to them,
- by keeping them apart from their colleagues,
- by completely ignoring their presence,
- by sowing discord between them and their colleagues,
- by prohibiting their colleagues from talking to them,
- by changing their schedule,
- by not inviting them to meetings,
- Preventing the person from expressing themselves
- by continually interrupting,
- by systematically criticising,
- Discrediting the person
- by not giving them any tasks,
- by not taking account of their advice,
- by giving them only useless or absurd tasks that do not correspond to their position or are impossible to carry out,
- by hiding the information they need to carry out their work,
- by giving them too much work,
- by not giving them the possibility of career progression,
- by not giving them the work equipment they need,
- by giving them contradictory or vague work instructions,
- by not giving them the same advantages as other workers,
- Harming the person as an individual
- by denigrating them,
- by ridiculing them,
- by spreading rumours about them,
- by criticising their religious beliefs, origins or private life,
- by mocking them due to a physical trait,
- by intimidating them,
- Following the person's acts and gestures, monitoring their telephone communication, recording their comings and goings, going through their drawers, lockers, bags, etc.
According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (
In Belgium, stress is defined only in collective labour agreement (CLA) No 72 of 30 March 1999 on managing the prevention of stress caused by work, determined in the National Labour Council and made mandatory by a Royal Decree of 21 June 1999 (Belgian Official Gazette of 9 July 1999).
"The notion of stress is a state perceived negatively by a group of workers and is associated with physical, mental and/or social complaints or disorders and is the consequence of workers being unable to respond to the demands and expectations placed on them by their work situation."
The legislation, which entered into force in 2014, now also takes account of the stress experienced by a single worker and opens up individual procedures for this issue.
Burn-out is not defined in the legislation. It is only mentioned in Article I.3-1 of the Code on Well-being at Work as one of the manifestations of psychosocial risks at work.
While there is currently no scientific unanimity on a definition of burn-out, scientists refer to its three main dimensions when establishing it:
- emotional exhaustion : this is a state of fatigue, a lack of energy that can manifest at physical, emotional or cognitive level. This is the key dimension of burn-out, but despite its necessity, it is not sufficient.
- depersonalisation : this is a negative response to others, a loss of consideration for patients, users, colleagues, students, clients, etc. It can also manifest as irritability, loss of idealism, cynicism and withdrawal.
- a reduction in self-development : this is the tendency to assess your work negatively, a reduction in the feeling of competence, success and/or effectiveness.
It is found that:
- burn-out appears in "normal" people with no mental issues.
- emotional exhaustion is the key dimension and leads to fatigue and potentially depression.
- the focus is on mental and behavioural symptoms rather than physical symptoms.
- this is a negative individual experience that affects feelings, motivations and expectations.
- burn-out is considered to be linked to work.
Burn-out can be associated with long-term exposure to stress. It can lead people to leave their jobs and cause generalised depression.
Burn-out generally appears when a worker is unable to do their job as they should or as they would like to. This inability results from:
- work constraints: too much work, unrealistic outcome objectives, a lack of training, lack of recognition, too great a difference between the "ideal" work for the worker (i.e. their own representations of the job) and the actual work, etc.
- the worker's resources: their skills, their freedom of action, support from colleagues, from line management, etc.
The differences between stress and burn-out have been summarised as follows:
Direct consequence of professional stress factors. The meaning of the work is not central
The meaning of the work has an important role to play in the appearance of the syndrome
Is temporary or chronic
Is the result of exposure to persistent long-term stress
May affect any kind of worker
Primarily affects people who attach a great deal of importance to work
Is not necessarily accompanied by negative attitudes towards others
Negative attitudes and behaviours towards colleagues, clients, patients, etc. Cynicism
Social support and coping strategies can act as mediators between stress and burn-out
All workers are covered by the legal provisions on well-being, including the provisions on psychosocial risks at work.
Workers are understood as people who are involved in performing work, for payment, under the authority of a person and in the context of an employment contract,
Also included with workers are:
- people who, without an employment contract, carry out work under the authority of another person (for example, officials in all the public services who work without a status, persons carrying out activities in the context of a local employment agency (within certain limits), prisoners who perform work, etc.);
- persons following a professional training course whose training programme provides for a form of work which may or may not be carried out in the training establishment (for example, persons with disabilities working under a special apprenticeship contract for vocational rehabilitation or a vocational rehabilitation or training contract);
- persons bound by an apprenticeship contract;
- pupils and students when they are carrying out a form of work provided for in their study programme, within the educational establishment.
All employers in the public and private sector are concerned by the prevention of psychosocial risks at work.
The employer is the person in whose service the employer is working for a certain period in performing a job under the authority of this employer and for payment.
Persons equivalent to employers are those who employ persons equivalent to workers.
Third parties are persons who are not employees of the company, but who come into contact with these employees in the course of their work. They can include:
- service providers;
- pupils and students (who are not equivalent to workers);
- benefit recipients;
- employees of an external company.
The employer must pay particular attention to the potential danger represented by contact with third parties. Further explanations on this issue: Psychosocial risks > The prevention policy > Risk analysis and preventive measures in the event of abusive behaviours by third parties .
Third party victims of violence or harassment by workers also have certain rights. Further explanations on this issue: Psychosocial risks > Specific issues linked to third parties in the workplace .