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A recent law has changed the approach to psychological well-being at work in Belgium. The law allows any employee to ask for a psychological intervention for work-related mental health issues. For the first time the concept of burn-out appears in Belgian legislation. Before that the law on well-being focussed on harassment, indecent behaviour or aggression. The legislator finally acknowledges that there is a problem.

We do have a Health problem

Research by Securex reveals the problem.

  • 11% of Belgian employees has experienced a discrimination.
  • 10% complains about harassment.
  • 1,4% felt victim of sexually inappropriate behaviour.
  • not less than 16% experience aggressiveness on the job, especially in the services industry. This figure has doubled in one year.

These numbers are hallucinating. No need to say that a work environment like this creates stress and exhaustion. The impact on mental health is enormous. Not so long ago people saw stress or burn-out as a weakness. The issue of mental health was not debatable. And in many companies it still isn’t. So the good thing about this legislation is that creates more openness. This offers opportunities to employees and employers to look for solutions to create a healthy work place. For some employers the law is redundant because they invest in creating healthy workplaces.
Other employers could say that mental health is not exclusively related to work. They could argue that there is a crossover between family and professional life. That is true. But this does not diminish the employer’s responsibility to do something about mental health issues. I do not believe in a solid boundary between private and professional life. You bring professional worries home. You cannot switch off your private concerns at the company gate. As work and private life get more integrated – e.g. through mobile technology – employers cannot close their eyes for the general challenge of employee health. And they can do a lot. Employers can take a lot of initiatives that help people to become more resilient, more capable of coping, stronger in the face of e.g. an aggressive customer. Leaders, HR professionals, psychologists, occupational health practitioners are available tackle mental health problems, even in the case of private critical incidents.

We need to go beyond

It’s also a pity that we’d need a law just to give someone the right to talk about stress at work. And creating awareness and psychological interventions will not suffice.  We need to go beyond that. Employers should offer a context where people are successful. Work can be a source of health, talent development and engagement. Work contributes a great deal to health. Work is also the source of sustainable employability. But we need to acknowledge that people are unique. They have different strengths and needs. So any suitable approach to tackling the problem of stress and burnout is individualized.

Customized Solutions

This requires employers to offer customized solutions. These will enable people to work longer with more fulfillment and in better health. Offering a customized job, with personalised coaching will not take away the problem of e.g. agressive customers (that’s a sign of the time). It will make people stronger and allow them to cope better. Flexible work arrangements will not solve the family stress as such, but it offers ways to cope with it. Work that is adapted to personal talent will be more fulfilling. Every work environment offers possibilities for customization. And like always, it’s a matter of give and take and of shared responsibility.

To be employed is the Target

Let’s not forget that 14% of Belgians suffer from some sort of psychological disorder. The OECD urged Belgium to adopt practices that leverage the work participation of people with a mental illness. Here’s an important role for employers. Offering a healthy work environment with customized work prevents people to fall ill. It also allows the ill to stay on working, which is often a part of their healing process. Or should we expect that society (all of us) takes care of people with mental illness, or a psychological problem in general. Should the community finance a solidarity that makes people passive? By creating health through customized work we can not only keep people at work. We also strengthen the competitiveness of our ailing labour market and economy. The circle is closed.
I am co-author on a book on customized work. It was published in Dutch in november 2013. You can find info here.
customized work - health

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

One Comment

  • Johan Roels says:

    Good Work David!
    And …the first phase of the Creative Interchange Process which I’m daily living asks me to give the following comments. In those I’m ‘tackling’ your statement “Before that the law on well-being focused on harassment, indecent behavior or aggression.”
    I am that old that in the beginning of my career as engineer (1970) the law on well-being at work did not even exist. There was a law before august 1996 called “Law on Safety, Health and Embellishment of the Workplace”. This law was ‘born’ in my year of birth (1946) and finished in 1947, in those after world war II years, a new law, certainly on Safety, took some time.
    What is more, It took the Belgian Legislator some fifty years to update the law [The British were in 1972 swifter with their, for that time excellent, law based on “Safety and health at work – Report of the Committee 1970–72 (Robens Report, since the chairman was Lord Robens)”]. Thanks to Miet Smet, just before she left her office as minister of Labor in 1996, we got finally the first law on wel-being. That was the end of the era that a pot of paint, from time to time, was enough to comply with the safety law.
    That law of 1996, known as ‘The Well-being Law’, was still focusing on Safety and kept the ‘old’ elements (safety, health and embellishment) and added psychosocial toll due to the work, ergonomics and hygiene. In 2002 a new law, the law you’re mentioning in your blog, focused on harassment, indecent behavior or aggression. Nevertheless the real focus of well-being was still Safety (cf. The National Strategy for well-being at Work period 2008-2012 of our national Madame ‘NON’ Joëlle Millequet).
    I fully agree with your statement: The new law requires in fact employers to offer customized solutions. Luckily they can use for these customized solutions one great unique process: the meta process of learning and transforming… of course the Creative Interchange Process, coined by dr. Henry Nelson Wieman and updated and made applicable to the actual world and its problems by dr. Charles Leroy (Charlie) Palmgren, my third ‘father’. Based on the work of Charlie I’ve written my last book (in Dutch) Cruciale dialogen (‘Crucial Dialogues’). David, as a present for having read my too long comments on this blog of yours I sent you a copy of that book. For free and I think, in your case, not ‘for nothing’ (sorry for this old Flemish joke, could not resist).

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