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Workplace health hazard for stressed staff

Employers should do far more to tackle workplace stress, which puts staff at greater risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders, says a new study.

New research highlights the role of stress in the onset and development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

'Perceived job stress may... increase the risk of developing musculoskeletal problems when exposed to physical and psychological workplace stressors,' it says.

Experts in work system design carried out the University of Surrey study over three years; it involved 20 companies across 11 industry sectors.

Researchers questioned some 8,000 workers, 70 per cent of whom were in white-collar posts, such as office staff, and 30 per cent in blue-collar jobs.

Principal investigator Jason Devereux told Frontline: 'It's the first study to look at that link between stress and MSDs in a population of this magnitude in a diverse set of backgrounds.' 

Stress-related conditions and MSDs are the commonest reported causes of work-related sickness absence.

The study analysed the relative effects of workplace and individual factors in the reporting and development of MSDs.

Researchers collected data on physical stressors, including lifting or working with the head or neck bent excessively. They also looked at psychosocial stressors, such as heavy workloads and aspects of jobs such as control over decisions, support and 'role ambiguity'.

Workers' individual traits, including their 'neuroticism' and 'negative moods', were also taken into account.

People who had 'high exposure to both physical and psychosocial work risk factors' were found more likely to report MSDs such as low back, neck, shoulder, elbow/forearm and hand/wrist complaints.

Dr Devereux, an ergonomics specialist in MSD and work stress, said: 'What comes out clearly is that it's very little to do with individual factors, like your level of neuroticism, or your age; it's more to do with what people are doing on the job.'

He added: 'Your perception of whether you're stressed or not will influence the risk, it modifies the risk.'

By understanding the risk factors and how staff reacted to them, managers could work with workers to design more ergonomic workplaces and prevent stress, he said.

The government's new public health white paper, Choosing Health, supports the conclusion. The document says focusing on individual stress can be 'counterproductive', leading to a failure to tackle the underlying causes of problems in the workplace.

CSP national health and safety officer Claire Sullivan backed the University of Surrey findings.

She said member surveys had highlighted stress problems caused by 'sheer overwork'. 'It's not unusual to find that an employer who's bad at controlling risks of stress is also bad at controlling other risks,' she added.

'We would certainly agree strongly with the conclusion that employers tackle health and stress at work preventively as they are responsible for looking after the emotional and mental health of their employees. Tackling workplace stress is also extremely cost effective in the long term.'

Dr Devereux said clinical assessments and interventions such as physiotherapy had an important role to play in tackling health problems at work, although this had not come under the study's remit.

'If the workplace isn't altered to reduce exposure to these risks, the physio is going to be employed for a lot longer on that individual case,' he added.

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