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.(1) This year, the theme of their World Day for Health and Safety at Work was “new and emerging risks”.(2)

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”(3). 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%).

(These facts and figures, and others below, have been compiled from a variety of respected sources. Contact osh@newunionism.net for details, and for further such data).

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. The good folk at Baywood Publishing have even offered us a 40% discount (contact osh@newunionism.net for details of this offer). 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. Feel free to contact osh@newunionism.net with queries/ideas. We’ll let members know as soon as it’s ready to trial… and we’ll then seek two or three organisations to run a pilot scheme.

Notes

(1) See http://www.ilo.org/safework/whatsnew/lang–en/WCMS_124671/index.htm

(2)  See http://www.ilo.org/safework/events/safeday/lang–en/index.htm

(3)  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
    (Extracted from the Wiki here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_safety_and_health)
In the USA more than 65 million suffer from the symptoms of stress. 80% of workers saying they feel stress on the job; nearly half saying they need help in learning how to manage stress; and 42% saying their co-workers need such help. Depression costs U.S. business at least $44 billion a year. 420,000 such cases are reported in the UK each year.
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