Research/studies Musculoskeletal disorders

Psychosocial factors on the job can contribute to, prolong MSDs: study

Photo: Fertnig/iStockphoto

Bilbao, Spain — Excessive workloads, conflicting demands and a lack of support from management are some of the psychosocial factors that can contribute to the development of musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace, according to a literature review conducted by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

Published Nov. 17, the review looked at 53 published papers that provide “an evidential basis for a causal role” for psychosocial risk factors and MSDs.

“It is clear that both MSDs and workplace stress continue to present major problems to workers and their employers, leading to significant personal, financial and social costs,” the review states. “Given the recognized relationship between the two, it seems likely that their interactions further exacerbate the problem.”

Other potential psychosocial factors include ineffective communication, lack of influence over the way work in performed and psychological/sexual harassment. These factors may result in fatigue, lack of quality sleep, headaches, mood changes and digestive issues.

“Prolonged exposure to psychosocial hazards has been shown to be associated with a wide range of negative mental and physical health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, back pain, chronic fatigue, digestive problems, autoimmune disease, poor immune function, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and peptic ulcers,” the review states.

For organizations, these outcomes can lead to high staff turnover, reduced productivity, and increased costs from health care or compensation.


“Work-related stress is seldom the sole cause of such problems, but there is evidence that it can at times make a significant contribution,” the review states.

Organizations should recognize and commit to addressing physical and psychosocial MSD risks. Risk assessment of MSDs should cover both kinds of risks for “a systematic, holistic approach.”

To encourage honesty and openness from workers, measures should be in place to protect confidentiality, and follow-up actions should involve employees.

The researchers caution that further study is needed to examine the “complex relationship” between psychosocial factors and MSDs. For example, they write: “At present, there is no clear understanding of the biological mechanisms through which the influences of psychosocial risk factors are mediated.”

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