Small businesses and occupational psychosocial risks

Small businesses and occupational psychosocial risks: how to tackle them in a legally appropriate way?
Conseil régional d'Aquitaine
COMPTRASEC UMR 5114 CNRS - University of Bordeaux / Psychology, Health and Quality of Life Lab, EA 4139 / IRGO, Human Resources Team / Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Management (COHSM), University of Laval (Québec) / Stein Rokkan Research Group for Quantitative Social and Political Science, University of Tromsø
5 years - October 2014-June 2019

The Aquitaine’s economy is based primarily on single-site businesses and micro-enterprises with fewer than ten employees, which in 2011 represented respectively 69.8% and 24.6% of the headcount of all businesses. Conversely, businesses with over 100 employees only represented 0.4% of the Aquitaine economic fabric [1]. These regional economic characteristics therefore go to show that the majority of employees work within small structures.
Paradoxically, these small structures are the least well studied in terms of psychosocial risks (PSRs). The Conseil Régional d’Aquitaine’s 2014 call for projects is an opportunity to overcome this state of affairs and to kick-start interdisciplinary research into “PSRs in small businesses”. The identification of PSRs is also a regional priority, but there are international stakes as well. In this respect, the project will not only be the opportunity to objectivise local socioeconomic outcomes, in collaboration with regional stakeholders, it will also draw comparisons with other countries such as Norway and Quebec, which are familiar with these issues.
The introduction of the concept of “mental health” alongside “physical health” in the Labour Code by the Act of 17 January 2002 on social modernisation expressly stressed a global approach to occupational health and safety. The risk prevention obligations and liability of employers in this field were defined by the legislature, but – perhaps more importantly – by significant judicial interpretation. Since 2002, employers have had both a legal and general obligation to prevent risks to “physical and mental health” as well as a contractual duty of safety. Since the famous “asbestos rulings”, judges are indeed of the opinion that no risk should materialise in the work environment. If they do, employers are liable and the breach of their duty of safety can be qualified by judges as gross negligence entitling victims or claimants to additional compensation.
These developments in occupational health and safety law have occurred regardless of the size of businesses. SMEs and micro-enterprises, just like their bigger counterparts, are required to implement appropriate preventive measures and to respond to the collective occupational risks encountered in a context of social and labour tensions and economic crisis. These risks, generally referred to as “psychosocial risks” (PSRs) are defined by the Collège d’Expertise as “risks to mental, physical and social health, triggered by the interaction of socioeconomic factors with the workers’ mind” [2]. Today’s major concerns regarding PSRs can be related to the fundamental changes in the labour market: increased intensity and flexibility, new terms of employment and work organisation, stronger feelings of insecurity, imposed versatility. Studies on occupational health and safety have proliferated (OSHA-EUROPA, ESENER, EUROFOUND, SUMER, SAMOTRACE, etc.) and highlighted a general workplace malaise expressed in various ways: stress, harassment, violence, burnout, depression, suicidal acts…
Despite the emergency measures to prevent occupational stress from 9th October 2009, which stressed the issue of small businesses being subject to legal obligations in terms of occupational health and safety, studies in the field have been few and far between. Most of the available data stem from the testimony of risk prevention stakeholders (particularly from occupational doctors, health and safety inspectors and representatives of small businesses) and relate to individual cases. Their experience has led to a questioning of the appropriateness of current regulations and the observation that employers are institutionally and/or culturally deprived of external options which could help them deal with these situations.
Besides, the recent recommendation of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council relating to occupational PSRs advocates that “particular attention must be paid to SMEs/micro-enterprises in order to support them in the process of evaluating and preventing psychosocial risks” [3]. SMEs and micro-enterprises are characterised by their very specific organisations, approaches to hierarchy, interpersonal proximity and operation, which differ greatly from those of larger businesses. The small size of these businesses means their management style is also specific, familiar and particularly sensitive to market variations.
However, under current legislation, most businesses with fewer than 50 employees escape occupational health and safety law. They do not benefit from the law on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the smallest amongst them do not necessarily have company rules and regulations or staff representation. Yet the improvement of working conditions and occupational risk prevention law apply to all businesses and are important in terms of employment policy (attractiveness), social justice and public health. In this context, it seems vital to carry out an in-depth study in order to come up with a legally appropriate answer to PSRs in small businesses.

[1] INRS, Les PME et les risques professionnels, 2011,

[2] Gollac M., Bodier M., Collège d’expertise sur le suivi des risques psychosociaux au travail. Mesurer les facteurs psychosociaux de risque au travail pour les maîtriser Rapport du Collège d’expertise sur le suivi des risques psychosociaux au travail, faisant suite à la demande du Ministre du travail, de l’emploi et de la santé, avril 2011, p.42

[3] CESE, avis du 14 mai 2013, La prévention des risques psychosociaux, rap. Sylvie Brunet,