New Research Indicates that Workers Exposed to Bullying and Harassment Show High Levels of Mental Distress, Ill Health and Injury

A new study, published today (Wednesday, 1 October 2015) by the ESRI, finds that workers exposed to bullying and harassment show high levels of mental distress, ill health and injury. The study, Workplace Risks and Worker Outcomes from Ireland from a Comparative Perspective, by Dorothy Watson, Bertrand Maître and Helen Russell, drew on the latest available data from the European Working Conditions Survey which contains details on the working conditions of about 1,000 workers in each of 34 countries.  As well as examining how Ireland compares to other European countries in terms of exposure to risks in the workplace, the researchers were able to compare the situation in 2005 to that in 2010.

Four different types of Workplace Risks

The study examined the level of exposure to each of four different types of risk:

  • Physical risk, which involves exposure to vibration from tools or machinery, loud noise and extremes of temperature.
  • Chemical/biological risk, which involves exposure to smoke, fumes, dust, vapours, skin contact with chemicals or contact with potentially infectious materials.
  • Physically demanding work, which requires lifting or moving people, carrying or moving heavy loads, painful or tiring positions or constant repetitive hand or arm movements.
  • Psycho-social risks, which include unwanted sexual attention, physical violence, bullying or harassment at work in the last 12 months.

Key Findings

Ireland in a European Context in 2010

  • In 2010, Irish workers had lower levels of exposure to physical risk, chemical/biological risk and physically demanding work than those in many other countries. After taking account of the characteristics of jobs (such as occupation and industrial sector) and of workers (such as gender, age, education), Irish levels of exposure to physical risk ranked 12th lowest out of 34, while the rank for chemical/biological risk was 15th lowest and 15thlowest for physically demanding work.
  • In common with many other wealthy Western European countries, the level of exposure to psycho-social risk is high in Ireland (ranking 6th highest out of the 34 countries).  Exposure to this type of risk is highest in the France, Belgium and the Netherlands and lowest in Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus.  It is possible that higher reported levels of exposure to psycho-social risk in the wealthier countries might be linked to a greater awareness of the right to be treated with dignity in the workplace.
  • Ireland is similar to other countries in the kinds of jobs and workplaces which pose the greatest hazards.  Across all countries, levels of exposure to the physical hazards (physical, chemical/biological and physical demand) were higher in the construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing, mining and quarrying and manufacturing industries and in manual occupations. Exposure to chemical/biological risks and to physically demanding work also tended to be higher in the health sector.
  • In general, Ireland was similar to other European countries in the way in which risk depended on the type of job held.
  • Workers in different sectors and jobs are exposed to similar levels of psycho-social risk.

Comparing 2005 and 2010

  • There was an increase in exposure to physical risk in Ireland which contrasts with a small fall in exposure to physical risk in other countries.
  • There was a general fall in exposure to chemical/biological risk, including in Ireland.
  • For about half the countries, including Ireland, there was no change in the level of exposure to physically demanding work. Most of the remaining countries had a fall in exposure.
  • There was a fall in exposure to psycho-social risk in most countries, including Ireland.
  • Most of the associations between workplace risk and characteristics of jobs and workers that were present in 2010 did not differ significantly from those found in 2005, with only a small number of minor exceptions.

Association with worker health, mental distress and injury

  • We examined the impact of exposure to workplace risks on three worker outcomes:

    • self-rated poor health,
    • mental distress measured on a 5-item scale, and
    • injury experienced in the last year.
  • Exposure to workplace risks was associated with negative outcomes for workers, after taking account of other characteristics of jobs and workers.
    • Poor health was more common among those exposed to physical risk, physically demanding work and psychosocial risk.
    • Mental distress was higher where there was exposure to chemical/biological risk, physically demanding work and psycho-social risk.
    • Injury rates were higher among those exposed to all four kinds of workplace risk.
    • The negative outcomes associated with psycho-social risks and physically demanding work were particularly strong. For example, adjusting for other characteristics we calculated that 50% of those with high exposure to psycho-social risks reported poor health compared to 21% of those with low exposure. The corresponding percentages reporting poor health by level of exposure to physically demanding work were 41% (high exposure) and 19% (low exposure).
    • These patterns were, for the most part, similar in Ireland compared with other European countries.


  • Those jobs exposed to the highest risks are often those that are also disadvantaged in other respects such as pay, job security and working conditions.  This points to a link between overall quality of work and health and safety issues.
  • The particularly strong relationship between psycho-social risks and worker outcomes indicates that this form of workplace risk needs to be taken as seriously as the physical hazards that have been the more traditional focus of health and safety policies.  Psycho-social risks are not as strongly differentiated by job and worker characteristics as the other types of risk but they tend to be more prevalent in the public sector and in the health and social work sector.
  • An encouraging finding was the significant reduction over time in the level of exposure to psycho-social risk.  This suggests that improvement in health and safety is possible, even in the context of recession.
  • Finally, the comparison between Ireland and other countries indicated more similarities than differences.  This suggests that Ireland could learn from the experience of other countries in terms of policies and interventions that have been successful in improving health and safety in the workplace.

Report author, Dorothy Watson, said “There are more similarities than differences between Ireland and other countries in the kinds of jobs associated with exposure to workplace risks.  This suggests that we could benefit from looking at health and safety strategies that have been effective elsewhere.”


For further information please contact:

Dorothy Watson, Associate Research Professor, The Economic and Social Research Institute