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Stephen  Bevan

Stress and MSDs at work – under the hammer at the misery auction?

Authors: Stephen Bevan Professor Stephen Bevan

17 April 2013

I spoke to a friend today who has just started a new job. He was slightly taken aback to read in his new contract that his retirement age had been specified as 75 years old. It made him – and me – think about whether he could keep up the pace for another 25 years or so, even though he is doing work he loves. Surely our physical or psychological resilience can’t sustain us over working lives spanning 50 years or more? Can people really be expected to work so intensively for so long without burning out or falling over (physically and figuratively)?

The truth is that, despite increases in life expectancy, most of us will spend more of our later years with a chronic health condition. Last month the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010 published its findings and found that the largest contributors to the burden of years lived with disability (YLDs) were mental and behavioural disorders (including substance abuse; 21·5%) and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs; 30·5%). Together, these two groups accounted for more than half of all UK YLDs in 2010. As it happens, these two sets of conditions account for the vast majority of sickness absence from work in the UK and across Europe. They are also the two conditions which the NHS is least well-equipped to deal with, especially among people of working-age. The Work Foundation’s Fit for Work Europe project has shown that MSDs affect over 40m workers across the EU (at an annual cost of €240 bn) and cause 49% of all lost working days. Perhaps more importantly, up to 30% of people with MSDs also have a mental health problem. This problem of ‘co-morbidity’ is often overlooked, and yet will increasingly feature in the way we will have to manage the health and productivity of older workers.

Despite this, it seems that we’re in the middle of a ‘misery auction’. This is what a speaker at a recent event I attended called one of the least edifying features of austerity in healthcare. Specifically, he was referring to the need for those representing people with different health conditions to compete for funding, attention and public sympathy at a time when healthcare spending is under closer scrutiny. It’s easier, he argued, to raise charitable donations for cancer research than for heart disease yet both badly need funding to help those in need of practical support.

We need to avoid the same trap when we are talking about workforce health. Sometimes I see people arguing that we need to focus on workplace stress to the exclusion of everything else, or that back pain should be the priority. In reality, we need to look at the whole person, their life both in and outside work and the fact that their capacity to thrive under – or cope with – pressure will vary during their lives. Our recent research for the Bank Worker’s Charity has shown that these pressures may be intensifying as the financial crisis persists. Physical and psychological wellbeing are central to quality of life and to the quality of working life. It will only be by understanding better how one affects the other that we can shape interventions which keep people well, engaged and productive.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 2 Comments)


12 Sep 2014 6:09PM

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06 Dec 2014 11:09AM

on workplace stress to the exclusion of everything else, or that back pain should be the priority.