As a result of the global demographic challenge of an ageing population and the increasing diversity of working life, there has been a growing focus on sustainable work over the life course which has also placed greater emphasis on the importance of the quality of work and working conditions. As more and more people are having to work longer before retirement, it is important that they are able to do so.
A recent Eurofound report examined working conditions and their implications for worker’s health. Its findings confirmed a clear link between working conditions and the health and well-being of workers, highlighting the need to make work more sustainable.
Working conditions, health and wellbeing
Eurofound’s report found that this relationship can be depicted in a model based on the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), showing that health outcomes are the result of two processes: health-impairing processes (exhaustion) and motivational processes (engagement).
Health-impairing processes are associated with exposure to adverse work demands which tend to increase exhaustion, while motivational processes are associated with access to work resources that support engagement.
Such demands can include:
- physical risks
- work intensity
- work extensity (long working hours)
- emotional demands
- social demands
Such resources can include:
- social resources
- work resources
It is noted in the report that the demand and resources model partly explains how well-designed jobs – characterised by high rewards, high work and social resources and suitable levels of demands – translate into better health: “Whereas job demands are linked to higher levels of exhaustion (which, in turn, are related to poorer health), job resources are associated with higher levels of work engagement (which, in turn, are related to better health and well-being).”
It is therefore suggested that as job control, social resources and rewarding working experiences all have positive effects, employers should be encouraged to introduce initiatives that focus on motivational aspects of work.
As recently highlighted, the discipline of worker health has traditionally focused on worker exposures to various workplace hazards. However, this has more recently broadened to include the concept of worker well-being, which is seen as increasingly important. Not only is it important for the individual but it is an important determinant of productivity for enterprise and society as well. Indeed, the Eurofound report highlights this growing importance.
While the report notes that physical hazards have a direct effect on worker’s health and wellbeing and are undoubtedly remain important, these have not increased, but emotional demands have. This, it is argued, underlines the growing importance of psychosocial risks. It argues:
“In the context of ageing societies and services-dominated economies, it becomes more pressing to address these risks as the incidence of exposure increases.”
Other research has also highlighted the significance of emotional demands at work in relation to health. One recent study in the Danish workforce, for example, found emotional demands at work predicted a higher risk of long term sickness absence.
With the growing need for long-term care in ageing societies, it is argued that these demands are likely to increase further and, therefore, require particular attention. Different groups of people also face varying demands and are considered in the report. In particular, gender differences are considered throughout – highlighted as significant in some areas
The report found that men tend to report better health and wellbeing, and fewer health problems and better sleep quality than women. Men were also found to report fewer days of sickness absence and fewer days of presenteeism.
This is consistent with other research findings that show ill-health is more prevalent in women. One study exploring the association between work-related stress in midlife and subsequent mortality, and whether sense of coherence (measured as meaningfulness, manageability and comprehensibility) modified the association, found that occupation-based high job strain was associated with higher mortality in the presence of a weak sense of coherence – a result that was stronger in women than in men.
The Eurofound report findings show that as women often work in sectors like health or education, they are especially exposed to the psychosocial risks associated with these emotionally demanding jobs.
The report also notes that workers under 25 are most likely to face high demands while having the least access to work resources, and health sector employees in particular, face high emotional and social demands. It is therefore suggested that there should be investment in working conditions for particular risk groups, such as occupations requiring lower skills levels, reporting job insecurity, or witnessing workplace downsizing. Measures to promote high union density, good employment protection and gender equality which are likely to improve working conditions and contribute to workers’ health and wellbeing are also highlighted.
The findings of the Eurofound report, and indeed other research, highlight the need to look beyond the ‘traditional’, narrower framework of occupational health and safety to include the psychosocial risks such as emotional demands, along with motivational aspects of work. This calls for a reduction in health-impairing conditions and a fostering of health-promoting ones.
Of course, the world of work will continue to change, particularly in an increasingly digital world. However, striking the right balance between demands and resources through coordination between different policy fields could contribute to a higher quality of working life that is sustainable, regardless of the ever changing environment.
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