Psychosocial risks and work-related stress

While stress is readily acknowledged to be a common feature of modern life, defining stress, its causes, symptoms and effects is a very complex matter. It is now widely acknowledged that work-related stress is very common and that it has a high cost in terms of workers’ health, absenteeism and lower performance. Although stress is not a disease, it is the first sign of a problem; if the body experiences a continuous strain, stress can cause acute and chronic changes which can provoke long-term damage to systems and organs, particularly if the body cannot rest and recover.

In the longer term, stress can contribute to memory loss, peptic ulcers, inflammatory bowel diseases and musculoskeletal disorders, as well as hypertension and, as a consequence, to the development of heart and cardiovascular diseases. It may also alter immune functions, which may in turn facilitate the development of cancer. Taken together, these disorders are responsible for the great majority of diseases, death, disability and medical care use in most industrialized countries. They are also significant causes of death in developing countries.

Work-related stress is determined by psychosocial hazards found in:

  • work organization,
  • work design,
  • working conditions, and
  • labour relations.

It emerges when the knowledge and abilities to cope of an individual worker or of a group are not matched with the demands of the job and expectations of the organizational culture of an enterprise. It becomes a risk to health and safety when work exceeding the worker’s capacity, resources and ability to cope is prolonged.

Yet it has been proven time and again that effective solutions exist for the prevention of psychosocial risks and work-related stress. The best of these offer a very good return in terms of reduced absenteeism, better health, improved efficiency and productivity, and lower medical and other benefit costs.

In Europe, where regional figures are available, stress is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem; 50-60% of all lost working days are attributed to work-related stress and the number of people suffering from stress-related conditions caused or made worse by work is likely to increase. This represents a huge cost in terms of both human distress and impaired economic performance. In the developing world, in spite of the fact that work-related stress is an issue of growing concern and that a number of studies on work-related stress have been produced, we are still lacking information that could provide national or regional data on the magnitude of the problem and that can influence public policies.

The changing world of work, the economic crisis and recession are making increased demands on workers. Globalization and associated phenomena like fragmentation of the labour market, the demand for flexible contracts, downsizing and outsourcing, the greater need for flexibility in terms of both function and skills, increasing use of temporary contracts, increased job insecurity, higher workload and more pressure, as well as poor work-life balance, all these factors contribute to work-related stress and to the burden of stress around the world, both in industrialized and developing countries.

A comprehensive approach by practitioners, academics and researchers to emerging risks and new patterns of prevention is necessary to face the challenges that a changing world of work is bringing. For the ILO, the key to deal with psychosocial hazards and risks in the workplace is prevention by means of:

  • implementing collective risk assessment and management measures, as it is done with other workplace hazards;
  • adopting collective and individual preventive and control measures;
  • increasing the coping ability of workers by increasing their control over their tasks;
  • improving organizational communication;
  • allowing workers’ participation in decision making;
  • building up social support systems for workers within the workplace;
  • taking into account the interaction between working and living conditions;
  • enhancing the value placed on safety and health within the organization.