Mental health in the digital era.

SW – 02/2020

New ways of working can affect both workload and stress at work. Hyperconnectivity adds a new dimension to technostress by prolonging its effects, which is detrimental to individuals and society. This is the conclusion of a report on ‘The mental health of workers in the digital era’ commissioned by the European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee published in January 2020.

The report is based on a literature review of 22 studies investigating adverse psychosocial or mental effects associated with the introduction of digital technologies in the workplace. However, the findings in the report are only indicative and do not claim to be exhaustive.

Working with new technologies can have a number of negative effects on workers and society in general. For example, new technologies may contribute to occupational stress, mental overload, fatigue and even burnout. New technologies, characterised by their intrusive properties, can aggravate phenomena such as isolation, technoaddiction, sleep deprivation, emotional exhaustion and anxiety, and have a detrimental effect on quality of life. Furthermore, there is a risk of blurring the boundaries between professional and private life. Work-life balance is the second most frequently mentioned psychosocial effect in the studies examined.

Many work-related illnesses have their origins in both work and non-work environments and are not exclusively attributable to the work situation. For example, the two most prevalent disorders, namely musculoskeletal disorders and illnesses associated with psychosocial risks, are often influenced by both work and non-work factors. However, this does not negate the duty of employers to minimise relevant risks arising in the workplace or from work practices.

However, the report explicitly states that new technologies are not inherently harmful, but rather the way in which they are used. For example, the ability to read e-mails on a smartphone outside working hours is not per se harmful. However, the expectation that an employee will do so could be. This issue must be addressed. In many cases, these negative effects could be offset by suitable organisational measures and, if necessary, by monitoring their use. In a European Parliament debate on ‘A social Europe in a digital world’, Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, stated that in a world where new technologies blur the line between work and private life and cause mental health problems, the right to switch off and not be online is essential.

Council position

In its Conclusions of December 2019 on a new EU occupational safety and health strategy, the Council pointed out that psychosocial risks and stress at work are among the greatest and most pressing challenges for occupational safety and health. The Council has called upon the EU Commission to propose a Mental Health Strategy for the EU, taking into account the cross-sectoral impact of different policies to promote mental health, including occupational safety and health. Neither in its Communication ‘A Strong Social Europe for Just Transitions’ nor in its work programme for 2020 has the Commission provided a specific timeframe for proposing the new EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021 - 2027 or the EU Mental Health Strategy requested by the Council (see article Jan 2020).