Staff shortages: towards a European Health Workforce Strategy

High-Level Conference on the Future of the EU Health Union, organised by the Belgian Presidency of the EU

High-Level Conference on the Future of the EU Health Union, organised by the Belgian Presidency of the EU

(5 April 2024) EPSU recently participated in the High-Level Conference on the Future of the EU Health Union, organised by the Belgian Presidency of the EU. At the conference, EPSU representatives Jan Willem Goudriaan and Adam Rogalewski highlighted several key issues affecting healthcare workers in Europe and how they can be tackled on an EU level.

Adam Rogalewski emphasised the critical role of working conditions in tackling workforce shortages, particularly emphasising the importance of gender equality and work-life balance. He also drew attention to the alarming increase in violence against medical workers, especially in Central Asia.

EPSU's General Secretary contributed to the panel discussion on the Health Workforce, which aimed to provide consultation for developing a proposal for a European Health Workforce Plan. This initiative, proposed by the Belgian Presidency and set to be presented at the end-of-April health minister meeting, is a welcomed effort. It includes support for developing an individual directive on Psychosocial Risk Factors (PSRs), an action which EPSU has long campaigned for.

Outlining EPSU's recommendations to address staff shortages, Jan Willem Goudriaan focused on three main points:

  1. Strengthening occupational health and safety: Utilising Article 153 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which allows for coordination of social law to protect workers' health and safety. Developing individual directives on PSRs and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) is crucial, as these issues are closely linked to staff shortages and work-related stress. It should also be possible to develop a directive on safe staffing using the same principles used for the Minimum Wage Directive.
  2. Improving pay and working conditions: Pay and other working conditions (including Continuous Professional Development and protection from third-party violence) are pivotal and are negotiated through social dialogues on both European and national levels. On EU level, cuts have been made to a crucial sectoral social dialogue which represents 23 million workers and which has demonstrated the capacity to deliver meaningful change, including the Directive on the prevention of sharp injuries in the hospital and healthcare sector. It is particularly important to continue to develop and strengthen social dialogue in regions such as Southern and Eastern Europe, as demonstrated in our project with HOSPEEM. EPSU and other social partners are negotiating with employers to update guidelines to tackle third-party violence and harassment.
  3. Ensuring sustainable funding: Sustainable funding is necessary to improve working conditions. EPSU echoes the WHO-Europe's recommendation to safeguard the health sector from austerity measures and calls for economic governance rules that prioritise funding and investment in healthcare. Health should not be treated as a commodity and must be protected from commercialisation.

The conference highlighted calls for a European Health Workforce Strategy, which would need to be integrated with health systems transformation and resilience improvement. This strategy should cover various aspects such as planning, recruitment, training, working conditions, and professional development, along with evaluating the impact of existing EU legal frameworks on national health workforce strategies.

Addressing staff shortages in the healthcare sector requires a multifaceted approach involving stakeholders at various levels. A successful Health Union can only be built by prioritising the well-being of healthcare workers and ensuring adequate resources and support.