“The current debate on highly demanding jobs is missing the point!”

Unions and employer associations recently came to an agreement regarding the collective criteria for highly demanding job positions. This will make it easier to determine which employees will be exempt from working until a later age due to their demanding tasks. “A great attempt, but these new regulations are ultimately missing the point”, says Roland Vanden Eede, General Director of Mensura EDPP.

The topics of ‘workable work’ and early retirement for those in highly demanding job positions are still heavily debated. What is Mensura’s position in this?

Roland Vanden Eede: “To create more clarity when it comes to deciding which employees are eligible for early retirement, social partners seem to be focused on determining what these highly demanding job positions are exactly. Their goal is to make sure that those with a demanding occupation will still be eligible for early retirement even after the retirement age has been raised. The negative impact of these demanding tasks on the health of the employees, especially at a later age, should not be underestimated.

However, the first question that arises is: how do you decide who is or isn’t working a demanding job? Unions and employer associations have agreed on four collective criteria: jobs that involve physically demanding work, demanding work organisation patterns, increased safety hazards, or strenuous mental activities.

Nevertheless, employers seem happy to keep the debate open. They are working towards a more personalised approach for older employees, and rightly so.”

What does this personalised approach look like?

“From a societal perspective, it is highly recommended that we look at the personal circumstances of each and every employee. There is no such thing as a ‘demanding occupation’. Every occupation includes different tasks – ranging from light to heavy – and adjustments to these tasks can always be made. A roof worker, for instance, can easily carry out his job until a later age if he is allowed to skip some of the heavier work. It is all about making adjustments to each of these individual tasks.

Those employees whose tasks can not be made any less demanding would then be eligible for early retirement. A personalised approach also leaves room for valid alternative solutions, such as retraining or co-sourcing, which would facilitate flexible employment of workers across several different companies.”

Would a personalised approach lead to a more complex system of work organisation?

“Increasing labour market flexibility and encouraging employers and employees to take more responsibility are key elements in finding a solution that works, particularly in smaller companies.  

To avoid creating a system that is too complex, we have to enter into a debate with our ministers and come to a solution together. Also, throughout the debate, we should be focusing on how we can make adjustments to those heavy tasks for older employees, as opposed to merely drawing up a list of ‘highly demanding occupations’.”

So, the debate on highly demanding occupations is essentially off-topic?

“Exactly. They are debating the wrong topic. What this debate should really be about, is that the number of heavy tasks carried out by older employees should be greatly restricted. Our current generation of older workers are partly worn out due to the heavy work they carried out when younger. If we fail to do things differently for our younger workforce, then nothing will change.

There is something else to consider as well. Working a highly demanding job is not the only thing that impacts health at a later age. The socio-economic class of employees is also a key factor.

If we want to maintain the same level of prosperity throughout our society in future years, then we will have no choice but to work until a later age. But at the same time, some older employees are indeed no longer capable of carrying out certain tasks. What we see now is that more and more older workers are slipping away in long-term absenteeism. There is clearly a need for a thorough debate on ‘highly demanding tasks’ as opposed to ‘highly demanding occupations’.”