Occupational health research round-up: December 2016

This month’s round-up of occupational health research looks at studies on therapists with upper limb disorders, the impact of health coaching and other topics.

Therapists suffer from upper limb disorders

More than 80% of therapists have persistent work-related upper limb disorders (defined as reporting symptoms in at least one upper limb region in the past year), according to an IOSH-funded study. The most affected sites for symptoms are shoulders, neck and thumbs, and in one in four therapists, symptoms were so incapacitating that they could not carry out normal activities at work, at home or during leisure time. The research also finds that the onset of symptoms is mainly within the first five years of practice, or even as early as during training. Therapists who schedule their own appointments were half as likely to experience work-related upper limb disorder symptoms as those who use assistant or electronic booking systems. The authors conclude that the very high prevalence of problems in therapists working with hand-intensive tasks warrants further attention from health and safety specialists and employers.

High job demands and performance

High job demands can improve employee performance, but only if they are coupled with higher job security. But without the latter, demands impair performance to some extent, according to this study. It draws on social exchange theory to examine the moderating effect of job security on the job demands/job performance relationship, concluding that HR practices should focus on employees’ perceived job security in addition to reducing job demands.

Chang-qin L et al. “Revisiting the relationship between job demands and job performance: the effects of job security and traditionality”. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, published online 29 September 2016.

Health coaching has only limited effect in wellbeing programmes

Adding health coaching to an existing wellbeing programme produces only limited additional benefits, according to this study of 302 volunteers. Participants were assigned to receive three coaching treatments, delivered in weekly 30- to 40-minute telephone sessions, or a control group. Other elements of the wellbeing programme (including education, support and access to exercise schemes) continued as before. Health coaching did produce some benefits in terms of lower blood pressure, but little in other risk factors, such as body weight, resting heart rate or fitness scores.

Sforzo GA et al. “The effects of health coaching when added to a wellness program”. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, published online 21 September 2016.

Public support workplace health and safety despite bad image

The public remains supportive of efforts to promote safer workplaces, despite negative perceptions. This is one of the findings from a five-year programme exploring the role safety and health plays in the context of automated production and disparate workforces. Six studies were commissioned by IOSH, exploring modern-day worker protection at a time when the health and safety is regularly lambasted in sections of the media and is subject to reviews into its regulatory framework. IOSH executive direction of policy, Shelley Frost, said: “Businesses, politicians and the media are posing questions of the profession and the system in which its members work, asking whether we need current levels of regulation and whether practitioners are being overzealous in their recommendations to employers.”

Frost S and Dingwall R (eds). “Health and safety in a changing world”.

Most GPs self-diagnose

GPs have low rates of registration with a doctor and high rates of self-treatment, contrary to international guidelines, according to this study of German physicians. The study of 285 GPs shows that only 19% are registered as patients, 58% report at least one chronic health condition, 68% self-diagnose and 60% self-treat.

Schulz S et al. “Illness behaviour of general practitioners: a cross-sectional survey”. Occupational Medicine, published online 3 October 2016.

Link between working overtime and depression not significant

The association between working overtime and the development of depression is small and not statistically significant, according to this meta-analysis of seven studies. However, the association tends to be greater for women, prompting the authors to suggest more research into sex differences, long working hours and depressive disorders.

Watanabe K et al. “Working hours and the onset of depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis”. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, published online 6 October 2016.

Water-based metal working and occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis

Working with water-based metalworking fluids is now the most common exposure-related cause of occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis (OHP), according to this analysis of cases reported to SWORD, a surveillance scheme for respiratory diseases. Between 1996 and 2015, there were 202 cases of OHP, most of them among men, equating to an annual incidence rate of 1.4 per million workers in the UK. There was a fall in the proportion of cases due to agricultural exposure.

Barber CM et al. “Epidemiology of occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis: reports from the SWORD scheme in the UK from 1996 to 2015”. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, published online 8 October 2016.

Teachers in England risk “burn out” from long hours

Teachers in England work longer hours than those in most other countries, creating a risk of burnout, according to a report using data from the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey. Full-time teachers work an average of 48.2 hours a week – 19% higher than the average for the 35 jurisdictions questioned. And about one-fifth reported that they worked 60 hours or more in the week before the survey. Long hours, low starting pay and limited access to professional development create the risk of “burnout”, especially in the early stages of careers.

Employment policies have impact on return to work of staff with musculoskeletal disorders

An employer’s policies and practices affect the success and likelihood of an employee returning to work following a musculoskeletal injury, according to this Canadian study. The existence and content of policies affect both the transition from not working to working with and without limitations, and from not working or working with limitations to working without limitations, 12 months after the initial injury. The offer of a work adjustment, and an employee’s pain management efforts, also affect work functioning six months after the injury, the research finds.

Amick BC et al. “How do organisational policies and practices affect return to work and work role functioning following a musculoskeletal injury?” Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, published online 21 September 2016.

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