Nowadays when we think of parts of our lifestyle that can affect our health, we think about our diet, or maybe our smoking habit, but could your job have an even worse impact on your health? 

The modern labour market is a very different place then it was fifty years ago. Today there are more people than ever working in the service area, performing more mentally and emotionally challenging jobs rather than physically challenging jobs. According to the CSO in 2016 four out of every five jobs in Ireland were in the service sector compared to 1966 when the service sector made up only 41.2 per cent of the jobs.

When investigating how work can influence our health, we look at what is known as the ‘psychosocial work environment’. This is defined as the interactions between a person’s thoughts emotions and behaviours and the material and social work context. To create a positive psychosocial work environment there needs to be physical and mental wellbeing, as well as someone’s own positive perception of themselves. 

When studying psychosocial work-related stress, issues can arise in determining and pinpointing the exact cause of the stress. Stressors can come in the form of many different jobs demands, such as working under time pressure, emotional demands or even bullying and harassment. Stressors do not arise directly from something physical you can see or hear so alternative methodology is needed to identify these issues compared to identifying physical risks in the work place. Two methods used to pinpoint stressful job characteristics are the ‘demand-control model’ and the ‘effort-reward imbalance model.’

The demand-control model can be used when workers are subjected to high levels of psychological demands while at the same time maintaining low levels of control over decisions. This model explains how workers can feel overwhelmed and strained at work, feeling as if they don’t have any control on how their work day is structured, how they can allocate their time at work, what kind of work they can do etc. This in turn generates great stress that can lead to subsequent illnesses such as Coronary Heart Disease (CHD).

man on bus

Evidence to support this model can be found in the Whitehall II study of British civil servants. The initial study found dramatic differences in mortality by grade of employment. The second study focused in on how occupational and social influences could affect the health and disease of white-collar workers. The study found, that the men and women in lower employment grades reported lower levels of control, less varied work as well as slower paced work and even more alarmingly, the men and women that reported having low control in their work had a higher risk of newly reported CHD after a follow up period of five years. 

The complementary theoretical model, the effort-reward imbalance model is based on the notion of ‘social reciprocity’, a notion that we expect the effort we put in and invest in our work should be suitably rewarded. As many people would agree this is often not the case. When we enter an employment contract, we assume that our hard efforts will be rewarded equitably whether that be through money, esteem, career opportunities or even job security. What can often happen is we can get little to no reward for our efforts. This violation of the social reciprocity norm can elicit strong negative emotions and lead to an elevated risk of stress-related illnesses. 

These issues relating to job stress can be seen in an Irish context. In 2018 the ERSI did a report called the “Job stress and working conditions: Ireland in comparative perspective – An analysis of the European Working Conditions survey”. The report characterises job stressors into job demands and resources and to measure stress they combined people’s subjective reports on stress as well as stress reactions (general fatigue, anxiety, sleep disturbance). The report found that in 2015, 17% of Irish workers reported experiencing job stress compared to 8% in 2010. Overall, they found that job stress was highest in the health sector, the manufacturing sector and the construction sector.

So, with work stress and its subsequent health related issues on the rise, what can Irish employers do to combat it? According to the ERSI the most urgent action needed is to address job demands. While many workplaces have policies for bullying and harassment, only 40% of Irish firms have policies in place to deal with job stress. This is due to psychosocial risks such as emotional demands and time pressure not being as easily identifiable as physical and chemical risks. The report also stated that hours at work should be addressed as well. It found that workers working 40 hours a week experienced higher levels of stress. At the moment our legislation prohibits working over 48 hours a week but it would appear that stress reactions begin well before this threshold.

As Ireland’s jobs sector changes and develops, so do the issues found in the workplace. It is crucial that we are able to recognise when these issues arise, and how to deal with them. By using the concepts of the demand-control model, and the effort-reward imbalance model we can distinguish what aspects of working life are causing the most stress and what type of structures need to be put in place to alleviate these stressful issues. If we don’t, Irish workers will continue to be worked to death.


Róisín Ryan – Features Writer