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The impact of physical and psychological stress at work

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A physically demanding or mentally stressful working environment seems to increase the risk of musculoskeletal symptoms. But research now suggests that employees are most susceptible when simultaneously exposed to both sets of pressures.

Manual workers and administrative employees working for one company were surveyed on the physical and psychosocial demands of their jobs and the prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms. Of the 869 responses, 564 were classifiable according to degree of exposure to the physical and/or psychosocial elements of their job.

Physical demands included the amount of lifting, and size of the load, and the length of time spent seated while exposed to vibration. Psychosocial factors included mental demands, job control, and levels of support from managers and coworkers.

Around a third of the workers reported having had musculoskeletal problems in the neck, shoulders, hands, and wrists in the preceding seven days. Over half (55%) reported symptoms in their arms.

Workers exposed to either high physical or high psychosocial demands were over seven times as likely to report musculoskeletal symptoms. After adjusting for age, gender, and years in post, the highest and most significant risk for symptoms in the hand, wrist, or arms was found among those exposed to both high physical and psychosocial demands.

Psychosocial factors were more important when physical demands were high than when these were low, suggesting an interplay between these factors conclude the authors. Ergonomic strategies would do well to take account of psychosocial factors in the workplace as well, they say.

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