Occupational health research round-up: September 2015

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An ageing workforce means that musculoskeletal disorders will continue to be a problem at work

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) will be an increasing problem in workplaces in future and could be linked with mental health conditions. These are some of the findings of this month’s occupational health (OH) research studies.  

MSDs and older workers

The appropriate treatment and management of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) will be increasingly relevant to organisations, given the steep increase in MSD prevalence with age and the fact that the workforce will be expected to work for longer in future, according to a white paper by The Work Foundation. Prevalence rates also vary according to socioeconomic status; for example, low-income employees are more likely to need to extend their working lives, meaning that they are more likely to be working while managing an MSD. While there is a link between MSDs and obesity, there is also an association between weight loss and recovering from, or alleviating symptoms related to, an MSD. Various co-morbidities are also present: mental health, cardiovascular disease and other age- and obesity-related illnesses are more likely when an MSD is already present. MSDs are also the biggest single cause of lost work days in the US, accounting for 29% of illnesses and injuries leading to days off work in 2012.

Summers K et al. “Musculoskeletal disorders, workforce health and productivity in the United States”. The Work Foundation, first published July 2015.

Do resilience programmes work?

Organisation-wide resilience programmes have only a small effect on an employee’s ability to cope with pressure or stress, and this effect diminishes over time, according to a meta-analysis of 37 studies. However, programmes targeting individual employees thought to be at greater risk of stress and lacking protective factors, particularly if delivered one-to-one, were more effective than organisation-wide ones. Resilience programmes using a train-the-trainer format, or online delivery, were least effective.

In practice: to optimise the effectiveness of resilience programmes, developers should conduct a needs assessment, identifying those at elevated risk of developing stress.

Vanhove AJ et al. “Can resilience be developed at work? A meta-analytic review of resilience building programme effectiveness”. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, first published online 25 April 2015.

Older worker wellbeing

It is important to take into account factors such as workplace pressure, disorganisation and regulatory failure (PDR), in addition to the more traditional effort-reward imbalance, when exploring the health of older workers. A study of Australian workers with a mean age of 54.6 years has suggested that subfactors within the PDR grouping cover elements of work organisation not addressed by effort-reward imbalance, making it a “promising construct” with which to address issues of older worker health.

Bohle P et al. “Health and wellbeing of older workers: comparing their associations with effort reward imbalance and pressure, disorganisation and regulatory failure”. Work & Stress, vol.29, issue 2, 2015, pp.114-127.

Work-related illness among doctors

Mental health issues, including burnout, are widely reported by UK doctors, according to a literature review investigating the prevalence of occupational illness among doctors from different specialties. These issues were attributed to greater job constraints, managerial issues, difficulties with clinical cases and a lack of job satisfaction. Substance abuse in doctors was reported to be a risk of maladaptive coping mechanisms and was associated with early retirement. Orthopaedic surgeons were at risk of noise-induced hearing loss as a result of using airpowered and electric drills. The authors concluded that further studies are required to investigate the epidemiology of noise-induced hearing loss, nosocomial infections, skin-related disorders and workrelated malignancies.

Vijendren A et al. “Occupational health issues amongst UK doctors: a literature review”. Occupational Medicine, first published online 14 July 2015.

Recurring mental health-related absence

The median time between an employee recovering from an initial mental health-related absence from work (defined as an emotional disturbance or mental/behavioural disorder) and a recurrence of mental ill health is 15.2 months, according to a study of 391 workers with recurrent absence due to mental ill health. Recurrences occurred much sooner for mood disorders (after a median 5.2 months) and specific psychiatric disorders (after a median 5.3 months), the study suggests.

In practice: OH providers should review the mental health status of workers six months after recovery from a mental health-related absence from work, the authors conclude.

Norder G et al. “Time to recurrence of mental health-related absence from work”. Occupational Medicine, first published online 18 July 2015.

Psychological job demands and MSDs

Psychological job demand and job control contribute independently to injury and MSD risk in manufacturing workers, according to a study that uses expert ratings as predictors of injury. Workers in jobs with high levels of psychological demand had a 49% greater risk of serious injury and of experiencing a serious MSD; those in jobs with low control had an increased risk of experiencing a minor MSD and injury.

Cantley LF et al. “Expert ratings of job demand and control as predictors of injury and musculoskeletal disorder risk in a manufacturing cohort”. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, first published online 10 July 2015.

Pain data predicts absence length

Collecting data from employees on the pain that they experience during periods off work with back pain can help identify those at high risk of prolonged absence, or who might need additional support to return to work, according to a study of around 1,500 Canadian workers. Adding in a worker’s rating of pain at baseline improved the predictive ability of a standard rehabilitation model from “fairly good” to “good”.

Steenstra IA et al. “The added value of collecting information on pain experience when predicting time on benefits for injured workers with back pain”. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, first published online 8 July 2015.

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