More evidence that workplace psychosocial factors are related to mental and physical health outcomes

By Richard Wynne, European Network for Workplace Health Promotion

The study of the impact of workplace psychosocial factors on health and wellbeing began in earnest in the 1980’s with the work of Karasek, Levi and Theorell amongst others. Drawing on work in the area of psychosocial stress, theories specific to the workplace that pointed to issues of job demands and control, working hours and shift work were articulated and developed. The first studies from that period provided evidence to support the impact of these factors on health and wellbeing and since then there has been a large increase in studies investigating the precise relationships between a range of psychosocial workplace factors and health has taken place.

The evidence that workplace psychosocial factors affect health continues to accumulate. A recent review study provides a meta-analysis of the relationships with both physical and mental health outcomes.  The authors (Niedhammer et al, 2021) review 72 review studies published over the past 20 years and conclude that there is consistent evidence of relationships that vary in strength with the type of workplace factor and the type of health condition under study.

Multiple psychosocial risk factors

The psychosocial risk factors examined included job strain, high strain, low decision latitude, psychological demands, long working hours, effort reward imbalance, job insecurity and organisational injustice.  In addition, some studies looked at the impact of bullying and workplace violence or threats in relation to mental health outcomes.  The health outcomes studied included coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, health related behaviours, depression and other mental health outcomes.

Niedhammer and her co-authors provide a wealth of detail on these studies and report that they show multiple statistically significant relationships between these factors, with especially strong relationships being seen with various mental health related outcomes.

What kind of interventions?

Though the study did not look at the kinds of interventions that can be made or their effectiveness, it nonetheless points to the need to devise ways to intervene effectively if both the requirements of health and safety legislation and the opportunity to promote health and wellbeing in the workplace are to be grasped.  There is an urgent need to promote effective and well-designed intervention research, so that the most effective and efficient methods of prevention and mitigation can be identified.

Broadly speaking, interventions can be made that target either the individual, the work environment or some combination of the two.  The interventions currently being set up for trial within the H-Work project will provide further valuable evidence to advance our understanding of the practical and theoretical issues that influence effective health promotion and protection in the workplace.

For more information see: Niedhammer, I. Bertrais, S. and Witt, K. (2021).  Psychosocial work exposures and health outcomes: a meta-review of 72 literature reviews with meta-analysis.  Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health – Online First, 3 September 2021.