work-stress

THE PSYCHOSOCIAL RISKS OF OCCUPATIONAL STRESS

Do you know that occupational stress has a relation with high psychosocial risks? 

The following article from the Portuguese Journal of Occupational Health allows us to perceive the magnitude of occupational stress as a public health problem and as a psychosocial risk factor. 

OCCUPATIONAL STRESS AS A PRINCIPAL FACTOR OF PSYCHOSOCIAL RISK 

Occupational stress is already consider a real public health problem, due to its magnitude and transcendence. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), it is the second most frequently reported health problem in Europe after musculoskeletal disorders. It affects some 40 million workers in the EU; it is estimated to account for about 50 to 60% of all lost working days (EU-OSHA, 2017). Occupational stress has a cost of around 20 billion per year (EC, 2002). In a communiqué from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, around 51% of European workers say that stress in their work is common and 41% consider that there is mismanagement of it. In Portugal, the figures reported were 59% and 62% respectively (EU-OSHA, 2013). As for the causes, among the most pointed out by Portuguese workers, is the reorganization of work, insecurity in the labor contract and working hours or workload, as well as the lack of support from colleagues or superiors (EU-OSHA, 2013). 

Psychosocial risks can be defined as “the risks to mental, physical and social health caused by working conditions and organizational and relational factors” (Pine, 2015). They result from the interaction between the worker, living conditions at work and living conditions outside work, and are likely to influence the health, safety and well-being of the worker, with possible repercussions on productivity and satisfaction (DGS, 2010). They are closely associated with occupational stress, but also with violence, harassment and intimidation. According to Cox and Griffiths, cited by Sacadura-Leite and Grape, psychosocial risks “have the potential to cause adverse physical or psychological effects on workers’ health through the experience of stress” (Milk & Grape, 2010). Stress is one of the strongest pillars of psychosocial risk in the workplace. Occupational stress, also referred to as “professional stress” or “work-related stress,” highlights “a consequence of the disharmony (or imbalance) between the demands of work and the capabilities (and resources or needs) of the worker” (Milk & Grape, 2010). It represents “an interaction of working conditions with the characteristics of the worker, where the demands of work exceed the worker’s ability to deal with them” (ACT, 2015). 

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Among the most common consequences of occupational stress are “a wide range of physical and mental pathologies and even death” (EC, 2002). The literature on the subject identifies several causal factors for this problem. Some of the identified causes are: “the workload (excessive or deficient); insufficient time to complete the work; lack of an unambiguous description of the tasks to be performed or of a chain of command; lack of recognition or reward for good professional performance; lack of opportunities to express complaints; lack of cooperation or support from superiors, colleagues or subordinates; job insecurity and excessive turnover; exposure to biases regarding age, gender, race, ethnicity or religion; exposure to violence, threats or harassment; awkward or dangerous physical working conditions; lack of opportunity to use personal talents or abilities effectively; and the possibility that a small mistake or lack of momentary attention could have serious or disastrous consequences”. (EC, 2002) 

Recent research shows that occupational stress increases the risk of depression as well as alcohol and drug consumption (Santos & Moreira, 2013). Research in this area also reveals that stress at work is associated with worse performance, absenteeism and a higher percentage of accidents (SLIC, 2012). In addition to mental health problems, “workers affected by long-term stress may end up developing serious physical health problems, such as cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal disorders” (EU-OSHA, 2017). 

For organizations, the negative effects of occupational stress also include ‘presentism’ (workers who come to work despite being functionally limited), a higher number of accidents/ injuries and an increase in the number of early retirements. 

Although often subject to misunderstanding and stigmatization, occupational stress, understood as an organizational problem (rather than individual failure), can be controlled in the same way as any other workplace health and safety risk (EU-OSHA, 2017). 

Final considerations 

The management of occupational stress is one of the greatest challenges of the present day in the area of occupational health, both because of its negative impact on the health of workers and public spending on health, and because of its direct and indirect consequences on the dynamics of organizations and market economies. It is a factor of growing concern around the world. It has mobilized managers, clinicians and policy makers, to find the most efficient strategies to combat the problem. 

From EU-OSHA’s perspective, there is a need to raise awareness and create simple and practical tools to facilitate the management of occupational stress. It is important to promote national surveillance of psychosocial risk factors at work and the development of policies and programmes to prevent stress and promote workers’ physical and mental health and well-being (EU-OSHA, 2017), bearing in mind that the management of occupational stress “is not only a moral obligation and a good investment for employers, but also a legal imperative laid down in the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC, reinforced by framework agreements with the social partners on stress at work and harassment and violence at work” (EU-OSHA, 2017). 

Source: Junqueira M. Occupational Stress as a Major Factor in Psychosocial Risk. Portuguese Journal of Occupational Health on line. 2017, volume 3, 1-3.