EPSU at the high level EU conference on the mental health impact of COVID-19 on workers and population

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(17 May 2021) On 10 May Penny Clarke, EPSU Deputy General Secretary, participated at the high level conference on the mental health impact of COVID-19 ‘Mental health and the pandemic: living, caring, acting!’, organized by the DG Sante. The conference was organized during the  European Mental Health Week (10 to 16 May) and was opened by Stella Kyriakides, the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

The event aimed to highlight what it means to live in a world defined by COVID-19 and to provide care in this pandemic age, as well as how we can ensure that our health systems are well-equipped to provide services for people with mental health needs, now and in the future.

Penny Clarke spoke in the parallel session dedicated to care workers in social and residential care, moderated by the Maria Jepsen, Acting Executive Director European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions and with the participation of William Cockburn, Head of Prevention and Research Unit, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

In her presentation Penny underlined the connection between working conditions and mental health, stressing that overall quality working conditions are vital for preventing stress and safeguarding mental well-being. Furthermore, it needs to be emphasised that mental issues are Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), and as such OSH is an important part of the European Social Dialogue and requires the strong involvement of European Social Partners including EPSU. It was the social partners who in 2004 developed the framework agreement on Work Related Stress.

Commenting on the mental health challenges faced by workers in social and residential care Penny Clarke said that the main challenges were connected with existing, prior pandemic problems in the social services, where care was treated as a commodity. Those included privatization, austerity measures, underfunding, precarious employment, inadequate levels of personnel or limited access to trade unions in the residential care sector.  The pandemic only exacerbated those challenges by adding more OSH risks, including lack of protective equipment, limited access to vaccination for care workers or increasing work intensification caused by the inadequate levels of staffing. We are aware of examples of extreme cases of 14 hour long shifts or 40 days of work without break in some care homes (see the conference organized by Kommunal and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on the 4 May). We also observed increased violence against care workers, and in the case of posted domestic workers (live- in care workers) lack of access to any form of protection against COVID or even forced extended stay at the homes of care recipients.

Given the lessons learnt from the pandemic, the EU more than ever needs to prevent psychosocial risks and stress and protect care workers’ mental health.

To that end EPSU calls for better enforcement of OSH regulations, including:

  • mandatory application of administrative controls, and stronger sanctions on employers in cases of non-compliance with OSH regulations (right to withdraw from work under the Framework Directive on OSH (89/391/EEC);
  • more risk assessments which are conducted more often, and with the participation of trade unions’ representatives;
  • developing a dedicated directive on Psychosocial Risks and Stress (PSR), which will include a definition of burnout.

Furthermore, the next EU – OSH (2021-2027) strategy should focus more on mental health.

It is also vital to eliminate precarious working conditions in the sector and include full sick pay for all workers, and for those who are in the temporary contracts extended for the time of the pandemic.  Moreover, the EU needs to promote collective bargaining, given the crucial role of trade unions OSH representatives in preventing PSR.

It is crucial to ensure adequate staffing levels to address work intensification and better protect care recipients.

Finally commenting on the fundamental role of trade unions and social dialogue and the involvement of states in delivering care, Penny Clarke in her presentation stressed the following:

  • Since mental health is an OSH issue, DG Sante should co-operate with DG Employment on that topic.
  • There is a need for a special sectoral Social Dialogue Committee for Social Services to address the issue of mental health (PSR) in this sector. There is no such committee for the Social Services at the EU level.
  • We need to ensure better access to trade unions and higher trade union density, and collective bargaining coverage of at least 70 percent in the social services.
  • There is a need for more and better enforcement of OSH legislation with more involvement of the relevant national authorities.
  • Informal carers need better access to formal care services.
  • Gender equality and work-life balance policies for all workers are central to ensure the  sharing of care tasks.

Finally, we need to ensure a stronger role of the state in delivering and supervising care services, including more investment, to ensure that everyone has equal access to quality care delivered by local services with adequate levels of personnel.

For conference report and the recording for each of the sessions click on the link below.


The conference was organised during the European Mental Health Awareness Week 2021. If you are interested, you can follow the other activities happening this week at https://www.mhe-sme.org/emhw/.