From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Physical, Psychosocial, and Work Organization Factors on Injury/illness Absences

A recent study done by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden shows that work absence can be related to psychosocial issues as well as physical risk factors. The study, published in the March 2001 edition of the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine examined 3470 workers in the Swedish Postal system. Worker positions included administrators, cashiers, mail handling staff, rural postmen, office personnel, office cleaning staff, computer personnel, and technicians.

The study found that certain physical, psychosocial, and organizational factors were important determinants of incidence of sickness, independently of each other, and that some of the associations were sex specific.

The study quotes previous research that concludes conditions at work-such as heavy, physically arduous, or monotonous tasks-increase the risk of ill health, and that the grade of employment, work organization, and the psychosocial work environment may also be important for health and well being. The background research also suggests that high job demands in combination with low control are associated with, for example coronary heart disease and musculoskeletal disorders.

The study results found that for female workers, the strongest association with sickness absence was related to working in a forward bent position. Women reporting such problems had a more than doubled risk of being in the group with high incidence of sickness compared with women who did not report these problems. Women who performed heavy lifting or monotonous movements also showed an increased risk of sickness absence. Also, the occurrence of bullying at the workplace almost doubled the risk of being in the group with high incidence of sickness. Other factors associated with a high absence rate included seldom or never being able to discuss with the supervisor and working through illness. According to the author’s, this corroborates previous findings that a forward bent position was the most important factor in low back injury symptoms in female nurses.

For males, the greatest association with sickness absence was anxiety of reorganization. The risk of being in the group with a high incidence of sickness was twice that of men who did not worry about reorganization. Men also saw heavy lifting, monotonous tasks, and noise exposure increase their risk of sickness absence.

For both groups, factors reflecting low control, for example, no possibility of taking or making a private telephone call, showed an association with high incidence of sickness.

Several other reports have also pointed to psychosocial issues as a risk factor for increased injury and illness. In December 2000, Ergoweb reported that according to CCH Inc., a human resource firm, one out of every five unscheduled absences is the result of worker stress- costing business about $600
per employee every year. Studies indicate that between a quarter and a third of the
work force is reporting high levels of stress, and that those reporting stress as a reason for unscheduled absenteeism has jumped 316 percent since 1995.

Two studies published in the April edition of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology report that long days and pending layoffs can affect both your mental and physical health. The authors of one of the studies conclude that the employing organizations need to consider the effects that job security, and job satisfaction play in the worker’s overall health and safety.

The Karolinska Institute study also offers further commentary on current working conditions stating that although the Swedish work environment has changed during the past decade due to new technology and new types of work, employees still perform strenuous work tasks.

This observation is supported by a recent survey from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Working and Living Conditions which shows that while people assume that increased technology has improved the working conditions, there is no such automatic improvement or trend in any such direction.