NEWS

New illnesses typically strike certain trades and professions

Substitute computer data processing for factory work, and we could be reliving Charlie Chaplin’s film «Modern Times» all over again. Over 50 percent of workers in the former 15 EU states are forced to work quickly and under tight deadlines in order to meet goals and complete highly complex assignments, said Christos Ioannou, who was director-general of the Hellenic Institute for Occupational Health and Safety from 1993 to 2001. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has revealed that these conditions result in insomnia, fatigue, impatience and irritability in the workplace as well as a sore throat, back and shoulder pains, strained muscles and cramps. «In Europe today, work has a considerable impact on the health of the population,» Ioannou said. «It has been revealed that work intensification and restrictions on autonomy give less job satisfaction and as a result lower productivity.» Musculoskeletal problems The main health disorders affecting workers today include musculoskeletal problems (35 percent), stress (28 percent) and general fatigue (23 percent), according to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (European Occupational Diseases Statistics, or EOSD). Technological advances have not helped decrease the number of occupational injuries. In the last few decades, reported occupational injuries have increased because more people are working in painful and tiring positions. Those working at a fast pace and meeting pressing deadlines are experiencing back pains, muscle pains in the wrist and shoulders and occupational injuries. There is a close link between musculoskeletal disorders, stress and work ergonomics. Machine workers and assemblers have the highest risk. Part-time workers are also susceptible to these health disorders because many of them are technicians in industry, manual laborers and hotel staff. In the EU, 18.1 percent of the labor force is part-time, compared to 14.2 percent a decade earlier. Burnout is defined as physical or emotional exhaustion prompted by chronic and excessive stress. Workers suffering burnout feel depressed and out of control, as if their brains are literally overloaded. Symptoms include insomnia, headaches, gastroenteritis, sexual disorders and low energy levels. According to a survey conducted by the World Health Organization, 40 percent of workers suffer from burnout in Europe, Australia, the US and Canada. Burnout hotspots Workplaces which emphasize top-tier production often have several burned-out workers on their payrolls. Other workers push themselves because they want a promotion or are afraid of getting fired. Burnout affects some high-stress professions more than others. For example, many doctors – particularly surgeons – are affected by the condition, as are health service workers such as nurses, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Journalists, who often face daily deadlines, also suffer from burnout. Stress Over 40 million people – nearly one in three workers in the EU 15 – say they suffer from work stress. But millions more could be suffering from work-related health disorders quietly. Most company bosses say they don’t know how much stress impacts the success of their businesses. Several factors contribute to stress, including reduced staffing levels, the aging work force, the increased number of working mothers entering the work force with a dual role, and developments in IT technology. Stress weakens the immune system and leads to depression, tension, fatigue, sleep disturbances, heart problems and stomach disorders. Stress-related health disorders are weakening workers and, as a result, increasing costs for companies. Work-related stress costs billions of euros annually, according to data from the European Organization for Health and Safety at Work. In the Netherlands, absenteeism and inability to work due to stress cost 12 billion euros in 2004. Workers in Greece, Ireland and Great Britain face a higher risk of occupational stress than workers in Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. But in Finland, the number of workers suffering from burnout and sleep disturbances has risen from 17 to 27 percent. ‘Sick’ buildings The physical workplace itself often worsens health problems for workers. The World Health Organization says one in three buildings – regardless of whether they are new or under construction – are troubled by «internal pollution.» This usually means the air quality inside is very poor, polluted by formaldehyde – which is found in insulation, plywood furniture, chipboard and synthetic carpets – and carbon monoxide, which is enhanced by cigarette smoke. Other office air pollutants include nitrogen oxide, asbestos and artificial mineral materials. If smoking is permitted inside the office, that also worsens the office air. Cigarette smoke carries some 4,300 chemical substances, some of which cause lung diseases and cancer in passive smokers. If you are suffering from the effects of poor air quality in an office, symptoms include breathing difficulties, a dry cough, sore throat, rhinorrhoea, watering eyes, headaches, dizziness, nausea, mental fatigue and disorders, physical fatigue, lethargy and digestive disorders. Working for a long time in a building with poor air quality can cause rhinitis, sinusitis, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, and diseases of the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Harassment and bullying Harassment and bullying are also on the rise in workplaces. A European Working Conditions Survey and research by EU member states show that physical and psychological violence, maltreatment, and sexual harassment in the workplace by employers and among colleagues has increased. This psychological stress causes depression, low self-esteem, guilt, fear, sleep and digestion disturbances, musculoskeletal complaints and post-traumatic stress. Inevitably, all these lead to time off work, staff agitation and a reduction in efficiency and productivity. About 32 percent of works – some 43 million people – are victims of occupational violence, maltreatment, intimidation and sexual harassment, according to findings from research conducted by the EU. Harassment is defined as repeated and unjustified bad behavior toward a worker or a group of workers. This behavior often involves unfair use or abuse of power from which victims are unable to protect themselves. Women are more likely to face intimidation, while men are more prone to violent attacks. Customers in service sectors such as hotels, restaurants, the civil service, health and education are more likely to mistreat workers.