Turning Psychosocial

There is a growing realisation in the health and safety industry that the game has changed. It used to be about back strain and blood-on-the-factory-floor. Today, we need to be looking for empty boxes of prozac and beta blockers as well. In fact in most developed countries stress has now replaced back injury as the primary cause of workplace absence. The ILO acknowledged that in March this year when, for the first time, they included “mental and behavioural disorders” among the list of diseases caused by work. This year, the theme of their World Day for Health and Safety at Work was “new and emerging risks.”

The ILO is not alone in having found a clear link between the way we work and the rise of depression, fatigue, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, burnout and hypertension. If it’s not quite a consensus, that’s mainly because the fallout from admitting it openly could be so enormous. With this would come questions of duty and responsibility, and then of liability.

The new and emerging stressors are called “psychosocial hazards.”1 To address them, progressive unions are starting to look hard at workplace culture. As many are finding, this is rapidly becoming the key challenge for 21st century union reps.There is plenty of data to back up the ILO’s decision to acknowledge psychosocial hazards.

  • According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, 60-80% of workplace accidents are stress-related.
  • Studies in Europe and other developed countries have shown that stress is a factor in between 50% and 60% of all lost working days.
  • One in six working men and women suffers from burnout or depression, while one in three has hypertension or coronary artery disease. Some studies estimate that job strain alone accounts for at least 70% of burnout and 30% of hypertension among working people.
  • In a 2007 U.S. survey, about three-quarters (74%) of workers at all occupational levels reported feeling stress from work.
  • A 2002 study from Australia looked at how work factors contributed to suicides. The main factors identified were:
    •    work stress (21%)
    •    unspecified work problems (19%)
    •    an argument or disagreement with a work colleague or boss (13%)
    •    fear of retrenchment (12%)
    •    A number of other factors were identified, including performance pressure (9%), job dissatisfaction (7%), long hours (6%), being investigated over a work matter (6%), and retrenchment (5%).2

Let’s take a moment to enjoy a bit of callous insensitivity. I mean, hell, isn’t a bit of depression better than losing your arm in a lathe? Well, that might be so if it were an either/or sort of thing. But it’s not. The rise of psychosocial hazards is an extra.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are about 120 million occupational injuries each year. There are also about 200,000 occupational fatalities. And there are between 68-157 million cases of occupational disease.

Unionists who want to understand the way health and safety is changing, and to be part of the solution, would be well advised to get their hands on a book called Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences and Cures. It came out last year, and won our readers’ poll for best labour book of the year.3 The 18 contributors to the book are all experts in their separate fields, and collectively they have brought together evidence from hundreds of studies around the world to show how work has changed, and how the new conditions are affecting the health and well-being of workers. As one of them puts it, with admirable compression: “…working conditions determine the conditions of workers.”

Whether you work behind a desk, down a mineshaft or in front of an espresso machine, this book will help you reflect on what can be done to identify, understand and reduce the new risks.

Of course there are those who are very actively organising against any recognition of the new hazards. The potential expenses and liabilities are only just beginning to dawn on government and employer bodies. But as unionists and OSH practitioners alike have been trying to tell them, the cost of doing something must be weighed against the cost of doing nothing. After all, the World Health Organisation has calculated that occupational deaths, diseases, and illnesses cost about 4% of Gross Domestic Product worldwide.

Again, Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences and Cures is full of useful information here.

  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the USA estimates the costs from stress and mental health issues at more than $200 billion annually. This is based on 1999 figures. If one only took into account absenteeism, tardiness and employee turnover, this figure would be closer to $407.5 billion today.
  • A 1998 study of 46,000 workers, health care costs were nearly 50% greater for employees reporting high levels of stress in comparison with those who were ‘stress-free’.
  • It has been estimated that up to 40% of staff turnover can be attributed to stressors at work. Turnover costs average 120-200% of the salary of the position affected.

As a unionist and a worker, how you might identify and track these new workplace hazards? How would you describe your workplace culture at present? How would you like it to be?

The New Unionism Network is developing a workplace culture diagnostic tool. It assesses your job against ILO criteria of ‘decent work’ and then helps assemble you and your colleagues’ collective view of life in your workplace.

  1. Psychosocial issues include:

    * Work-related stress, whose causal factors include excessive working time and overwork
    * Violence from outside the organisation
    * Bullying, which may include emotional, verbal, and sexual harassment
    * Mobbing
    * Burnout
    * Exposure to unhealthy elements during meetings with business associates, e.g. tobacco, uncontrolled alcohol []

  2. These facts and figures, and others below, have been compiled from a variety of respected sources. Contact ten.msinoinuwennull@hso for details, and for further such data. []
  3. The good folk at Baywood Publishing have even offered us a 40% discount. Contact ten.msinoinuwennull@hso for details of this offer. []

New Unionism is an approach being developed by unions who want to make change and set agendas, rather than just reacting to them. The New Unionism network brings together supporters of these principles and seeks to encourage wider involvement in the change process. The network has no formal structure, no officers, no policies or meetings. New Unionism can be reached at: enquiries@newunionism.net. Read other articles by New Unionism, or visit New Unionism's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. BartFargo said on July 17th, 2010 at 11:30am #

    A good piece. It’ll be interesting to see what form the “workplace culture” diagnostic tool takes. The demands modern industry places on its workers are indisputably a major source of debilitating stress, as is the corollary conspicuous consumption every citizen is expected to engage in.

  2. beverly said on July 17th, 2010 at 3:32pm #

    Stress in the workplace is nothing new. Poll workers 40 years ago and you’d get similar responses concerning stress due to boredom, burnout, lack of fulfillment, money problems (i.e., don’t make enough to live off), fatique, shit-faced management, etc. What’s new is that these things are being talked about now. Given the craptastic job market, weak to nonexistent union power, and the labor hating/job killing govts that we continue to see every four years, I doubt much will be done to de-stress the workplace.

  3. franco_american1962 said on July 17th, 2010 at 8:11pm #

    Yes, Beverly, but with one catch: are disease-mongering, ivory tower lefties are called “epidemiologists”, and its up to them to find disease whereever it may lurk. There is nothing new under the sun, except, of course, now we have an “emergent” health crisis, where “the game has changed.” The latter is the only telling comment in the entire piece, and in no small part, that is what happens when “problems in living” become medically emergent issues, in need of “treatment”. The finest example of tautological nonsense: working conditions determine the conditions of workers.

  4. franco_american1962 said on July 17th, 2010 at 8:29pm #

    Soviet mental health experts, as agents of the state, would have had their own take on worker health, as per status quo. I, too, see nothing coming of this, and no manner of medicalizing of existential problems really ever amounts to much, except for maybe the uptick in drug prescriptions (pre-emptive drugging being another one of those tempest in a teacup “emergent” issues, and makes for great salon conversation)

  5. Happi said on July 18th, 2010 at 3:20am #

    There was probably not much wrong with Melissa Huckaby mentally until the community mental health system got a hold of her from her shplifting conviction. She was diagnosed with depression (probably b/c her husband abandoned her and their child and never paid support.) She should have been diagnosed with poverty. At the time of the crime she had in her possession prescriptions that were prescribed to her for paroxetine, aprazolam, benzodiazapine, Xanax, Adderall, and others, in addition, she was using her grandmother’s oxycodin. Even one of these drugs alone may cause insanity, and per her comments, it doesn’t seem like she actually remembered what she did, at least she didn’t know why. for examples of other manufactured lunatics, there is Kevin Underwood, who, on taking Lexapro killed a neighbor girl with the intention of eating her, Alyssa Bustamante, a 15 year old girl who killed her 9 year old neighbor after being on Prozac for 2 years, the VA Tech shooter withdrawing from antidepressants, and the Columbine shooters on court ordered antidepressants. Doctors see you for about 15 minutes before prescribing these mind altering drugs, they operate like people who have had numerous and substanital head injuries. But it is unknown whether these were all prescribed to Melissa legitimately or if she went around to numerous doctors not telling them about the other drugs. (Like Michael Jackson.)

  6. Happi said on July 18th, 2010 at 3:21am #

    Lexapro is a permanent life long cure for any depression if you can survive the treatment. I was prompted by a marriage counselor to go to my doctor and request drugs for my OCD symptoms (checking, intrusive sad thoughts, previous eating disorders as a teen and heavy drinking.) I went to my husband’s pcp who never met me before. He gave me a depression self-test and diagnosed me with depression and anxiety, and then prescribed me Lexapro and Rozerem since I had a terrible insomnia problem. He also decided it was a good idea to start kissing me and grabbing me in his office. The Lexapro did such a good job getting me up and doing things, lots of things, but unfortunately, I believe it also may have made me nervous because it raised my blood pressure from it’s usual 120/80 to 145/110. I was really up, up, up. I could drink twelve shots of straight liquor and still be walking around for hours. This was the busiest year of my life. I managed to get 2 DUI’s 4 drunk in publics and an involuntary commit for suicide, attend 2 rehab’s, a hypnotherapist, weekly ASAP programs, all while working full time an taking care of a young child. During the course of my medical treatment, I was seen by 3 psychiatrists, 4 doctors, and numerous counselors. Most of the follow up treatment involved numerous more drugs, anti-buse, campral, and Buspar. All of which I had to stop taking due to side effects such as full body tremors and falling down. Finally, after the second DUI which I was also charged with a felony for pinching a police officers butt, I decided maybe I should stop taking the Lexapro b/c I seemed to have developed some obsession with alcohol and I could see I was also becoming delusional. So, while in jail, I requested no more medication for 1 week and was able to kick Lexapro, although the depression side effects of the withdrawal lasted about three months. I met numerous other women in jail for DUI’s while on Zoloft, Lexapro and Abilify and others for shoplifting on Zanax. My depression is 100% permanently cured. I no longer ever feel sad about my life. I have never killed anyone driving drunk, I didn’t kill myself, I am no longer in jail, I didn’t get my kid taken away from me, I am not in a mental institution, and I don’t have a lethal diastolic blood pressure of 110 anymore. No matter what happens in my life now, I am always hopeful and never depressed. I know things could be much worse.