As increased stress among workers takes its toll on productivity, employers must look to effective ergonomic risk management for the answers, says Jon Abbott.

Stress is on the increase. Hardly surprising when you consider the state of the economy. Lack of job security and an increased workload, often as a result of co-workers being made redundant, are resulting in higher levels of stress among employees than ever before.

According to a recent poll conducted by Electoral Reform Research, one in four workers is experiencing more stress at work than a year ago. Researchers surveyed 750 working adults and discovered that 20 per cent have to work harder as a result of job cuts at their place of work. One in seven is in fear of losing their job.

Under pressure

Too often, workers under pressure slide into poor working practices, forsaking health and safety for what they perceive to be greater efficiency. Any benefit is usually short-lived and leads to far greater problems. In almost every case, the healthiest, safest way of doing something is also the most efficient.

The need to hit deadlines, prove their worth and the fear of redundancy can also result in employees failing to report injuries and ill-health. They don’t want to be seen as weak or letting the side down in difficult times. The psychological pressures on workers to be more productive are having the opposite effect and are taking their toll on their relationships, work/life balance and, inevitably, their health. Something needs to be done, and soon.

The European Commission is seeking to update EU health and safety law and bring display screen equipment legislation, manual handling rules and psychosocial factors, like stress and work pressure, together into a single directive – the Musculoskeletal Disorders Directive. Three significant ergonomic risk factors brought together into one directive. It’s a simplification.

Bizarrely, some employer organisations are not seeing it like this. They believe that combining separate threads of legislation into one directive is adding to the legislative burden. I’m afraid I don’t agree. For a long time, I’ve considered stress to be a part of ergonomic risk management. Get the ergonomics right and stress is reduced.

Psychosocial factors

Ergonomics is a discipline that considers three main factors: tasks, environment and people. In considering people’s ability to carry out a task safely and efficiently, psychological and social factors need to be examined. Any individual suffering psychological or social pressure will have their ability to perform affected.

Research into the links between psychosocial factors and work-related injuries has been going on since the 1970s and the evidence is widely accepted. Back in 2007 psychologist and Cardinus consultant Rick Spencer compiled a 20-page report on this evidence. Rick’s report confirms that many specialists, experts and academics have found links between stress and physical injuries.

The concept of psychosocial factors at work can be a difficult idea to grasp. Psychosocial factors represent worker perceptions and experience. Additionally, psychosocial factors include many other considerations that relate to the worker, conditions of work and the work environment. There can also be social and economic influences outside the workplace that can have repercussions within it.

The term ‘psychosocial factors’ came to prominence in psychological literature in the 1970s. Since then a vast quantity of literature has suggested psychosocial factors at work contribute to a variety of workers’ health disorders. The first extensive review on this topic, published in 1993, concluded that monotonous work, high-perceived workload, and time pressure were related to musculoskeletal symptoms. The data also suggested that low on the job control and poor social support may be associated with musculoskeletal problems and that stress symptoms contributed to the development of the disorders.

Health and safety heroes

Stress levels among workers have continued to rise and now we see stress at an all-time high. That’s why I believe that the EU proposal to consider work-related stress, or ‘wellness’, as part of an ergonomic risk assessment, is a good idea. Given the clear evidence showing how ergonomic risk management can help improve productivity through reduced absenteeism, fewer work-related injuries and improved staff health, well-being and morale, the benefits of including psychosocial factors in ergonomic assessments are obvious.

It’s frustrating that there is little appetite for this in industry. I would like to throw my support behind the single musculoskeletal Disorders Directive as it will help to make companies and the UK more profitable. It’s a shame so many short-sighted individuals see health and safety professionals as killjoys. To me they’re the fleet-footed efficiency heroes, once again saving UK plc.

Effective ergonomic management

The Cardinus approach is to apply simple programmes that provide a modular, adaptable solution. Workstation Safety Plus, the innovative online DSE assessment and e-learning solution, provides award-winning solutions that are fully endorsed by the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management.

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