Exploring the link between psychosocial risk factors and musculoskeletal disorders
Traditionally, the focus of occupational safety and health (OSH) has been to address musculoskeletal and psychological ill health (e.g. stress, anxiety and depression) separately. Although physical risk factors are usually the main work-related influence on musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk, workplace psychosocial factors can contribute significantly to the risk of developing an MSD and to exacerbating a pre-existing problem.
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What are psychosocial risk factors?
Examples of factors potentially leading to ill health include excessive workloads, conflicting demands and lack of control over tasks. Poorly managed organisational change, ineffective communication and lack of support from management or colleagues are also important factors, as well as harassment, discrimination and job insecurity.
Psychosocial risk factors may result in negative psychological outcomes such as work-related stress, anxiety, burnout or depression. But they can also contribute to MSDs. Preventing psychosocial risks requires looking at how work is organised and managed, in addition to how people interact with each other in the context of work.
How prevalent are psychosocial risk factors?
It is important to note that psychosocial risk factors can impact workplaces in all sectors and of all sizes. They affect all workers, no matter their position, or what particular tasks they carry out.
Data from the Labour Force Survey show that more than 1 in 4 workers report exposure to risk factors that can adversely affect mental wellbeing. Exposure to time pressure or overload of work was most often cited as the main risk factor (23.3%), followed by harassment or bullying (2.6%).
Alongside MSDs, European workers report psychosocial risk factors as one of the main causes of work-related ill health. Such factors inevitably lead to increased absenteeism and reduced performance, which entails significant costs for both companies and society.
How do they link to MSDs?
While psychosocial risk factors are mainly associated with stress, numerous studies have demonstrated that they also have an association with MSDs. There is now widespread recognition that they can have a causal effect.
One possible pathway by which psychosocial factors at work may influence MSDs, is by increasing workers’ exposure to unfavourable physical factors. For example, high job demands may lead to more rapid (rushed) movements, with an increased level of repetitive activity. Conversely, in sedentary occupations, high work demands might lead to longer periods of physical inactivity, with fewer breaks and extended working hours.
A second possible pathway is that work-related psychosocial factors can lead to stress, which can evoke physiological responses and may cause musculoskeletal symptoms. For example, the stress response may lead to workers experiencing a higher level of tension, increasing the strain associated with physical activities or causing the muscles to become more easily fatigued. Additionally, it may increase the duration of muscle activity and reduce the scope for recovery.
Considering this strong link between MSDs and psychosocial risk factors, it means that both MSDs and work-related psychological health problems must be addressed together when it comes to prevention strategies. Our improving understanding of psychosocial risk factors and their link to MSDs allows for a more holistic and effective approach to OSH, lightening the load for all workplaces.
You can find additional information in the OSHWiki article on psychosocial risk factors for MSDs, and much more.