New report identifies factors associated with the risks of work-related illnesses

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New research published by the ESRI today (20 October 2016) identifies workers who are most at risk of developing the two most common types of work-related illness-  work-related stress, anxiety and depression (SAD) and work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). In Ireland, MSD and SAD account for 50 per cent and 18 per cent of work-related illnesses respectively.

The report identifies risk factors associated with each illness, using data from the Quarterly National Household Survey for the years 2002-2013, and outlines implications for measures to assist those most at risk of developing work-related MSD and SAD.

MSD and SAD in Ireland

  • Work-related MSD affects different parts of the body that are used for body movement, for example, the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments.
  • Work-related stress is defined by the WHO as “the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope”. Depression and anxiety are distinct psychiatric disorders with defined diagnostic criteria.
  • In 2013, an estimated 55,000 workers in Ireland suffered from a work-related illness, resulting in the loss of 790,000 days of work.
  • The research measured the number of days absent for the most recent illness reported by workers in a 12‐month reference period. The average length of absence was 15.9 days for MSD and 17 days for SAD. Both involve longer absences than the average for all other types of work‐related illnesses (12.8 days).
  • The rates of both illnesses, especially MSD, increased during the economic boom years and decreased during the recession (controlling for the composition and size of the work force).

Risk factors associated with work-related illness
The research identified the characteristics most associated with SAD and MSD by examining workers’ gender, age, the sector in which they are employed and working patterns, including working hours, job experience, shift work and night work.
Factors associated with Work-related Stress, Anxiety and Depression

  • Women have a higher risk of SAD illnesses, with 5.8 per 1,000 female workers experiencing this type of illness compared to 4.0 per 1,000 male workers.
  • Workers aged 35 to 54 years are most likely to experience SAD: 6 per 1,000 workers in this age bracket experienced SAD illnesses.
  • The risk of SAD illness is highest for workers in the education sector, followed by those in health, public administration, transport and “other services”, which includes finance, information and communications.
  • Workers in the agriculture, construction and industry sectors have the lowest risk of SAD (less than 3 per 1,000 workers).
  • The self-employed have a lower risk of SAD illnesses than employees.
  • There is a greater risk of SAD illness for those working long weekly hours. Those working over 50 hours are three times more likely to experience SAD than those working less than 30 hours.
  • Shift workers have a greater risk of SAD.
  • New recruits have a higher risk of SAD per month worked.

Factors associated with Work-related MSD

  • The research found no gender difference for the risk of MSD after factors such as sector and work conditions (e.g. hours) have been accounted for.
  • Workers aged 35 to 64 years have the highest risk of MSD and are 2.5 times more likely to experience such illnesses than workers aged less than 25 years.
  • The risk of MSD is greatest for workers in the construction, agriculture and health services sectors. The risk is lowest for workers in the education sector and in “other services”, which includes finance, information and communications among others.
  • MSDs are not strongly linked to working hours.
  • Shift workers and night workers have a greater risk of MSD.
  • New recruits face a greater risk of MSD per month worked compared to more experienced workers.
  • The risk of MSDs was lower in years with a high health and safety inspection rate.

Implications for policy

  • Older workers are most at risk of MSD. In the context of an ageing workforce, it is important to consider measures that minimise the risks of MSD and assist those experiencing such illnesses.
  • The high proportion of SAD cases among work-related illnesses suggests that a greater awareness of mental health issues is required.
  • Employers find it difficult to assess and manage mental health risks, therefore further information and supports, such as stress audit tools may prove useful.
  • The high incidence of MSD among self-employed workers points to the necessity for assistance specifically targeted at this group.
  • There is a necessity to monitor work-related illnesses in sectors with greater risks of SAD and MSD and in organisations which operate shift work and night work.
  • Addressing the “long-hours culture” in workplaces is likely to reduce SAD.
  • Specific measures are required to assist new recruits, who face higher risks of SAD and MSD illnesses, such as training and supervision.

Helen Russell, Associate Research Professor at the ESRI and an author of the report, commented “The research findings point to a need for targeted measures to address work-related illnesses, not only  to assist workers experiencing difficulties, but also to tackle the issues of lost productivity, and the associated costs for health care and social protection. As the rate of work-related illness increased during the boom years, it is especially important to consider implementing such measures as the economic recovery accelerates.”

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