Work-related stress is indirectly responsible for up to half of all sick leave days taken.

Half of workers on a 40-hour week consider their work to be stressful or very stressful.

These figures - and several others - were discussed this morning at a conference on work-related stress organised by the Occupational Health and Safety Authority.

An OHSA draft framework agreement on work-related stress has now been opened to consultation and discussion among social partners. It was presented by OHSA CEO Mark Gauci.

The framework agreement seeks to entrench consideration for work-related stress within the workplace, encourage the creation of support systems for employees finding it hard to cope with their work and push social partners to share expertise and resources to better tackle work-related stress.

It comes with a model policy on work-related stress which outlines individual managerial responsibilities, demands consultation with workers and will require signature by the employer as a sign of commitment.

Although EU-level social partners signed a framework agreement on work-related stress in October 2004, Malta remains one of five countries to have failed to report to the Commission on its implementation of the European-wide framework.

Dr Gauci said that he hoped the local framework agreement would be reviewed every five years to ensure it remained up-to-date.

Stigma of mental health continued to hold back local efforts to nip work stress and anxiety in the bud, said Richmond Foundation CEO Dolores Gauci.

A recently-published study carried out by the foundation found that many employees with mental health concerns were reluctant to discuss them with their employer for fear of ridicule or stigmatization.

More than one in every four workers interviewed by the Richmond Foundation admitted that they had suffered from stress-related problems at work. Professionals tended to suffer more, with stress levels increasing in parallel with working hours.

Human Resources departments within workplace environments were often ill-equipped to deal with such problems, Mrs Gauci said.

Psychologist Roberta Zahra de Domenico gave participants a brief run-through of the various stages of stress leading up to total burnout. Stress, she said, could be helpful in small doses. But when allowed to fester and develop unchecked, it could become crippling and destructive.

What was stressful to one person might not be to the next, Dr Zahra de Domenico said, before reminding the audience that "Stress is inevitable, it's what you do with it that makes a difference".

Health Minister Godfrey Farrugia opened the conference with a brief speech in which he emphasised the personal nature of stress, touched on the OHSA framework agreement and reminded employers that stress was not only harmful to workers' health - the resultant lack of productivity also harmed their bottom line.

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