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The link between stress and muscle strain

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Occupational stress can increase a worker’s risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder, more commonly known as a ‘muscle strain’.

When the physical and psychological demands on workers are greater than the worker's ability to cope with them, they experience stress. Stress creates a wide variety of physical, mental and behavioural responses within a person, which increases their risk of tissue damage and pain.

Exposure to both physical and psychosocial work risk factors increase the risk of a worker reporting musculoskeletal symptoms.

Effective prevention and management of musculoskeletal disorders involves exploring work tasks and how they are performed, including any physical and psychosocial risks, the physical working environment in which the work is performed, and the individual worker’s needs.

The Principles of Good Work Design handbook is a structured way to assess this combination of risks.

What is occupational stress?

Occupational stress is the physical, mental, and emotional reactions that workers experience when they perceive that work demands are greater than their capacity to do the work, due to limited ability or necessary resources.

The impact of stress

Occupational stress is linked to a number of poor worker health outcomes, diseases and disorders, including:

  • musculoskeletal disorders
  • sleep disturbances
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • diabetes mellitus
  • hypertension
  • mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression.

Poorly managed stress can also lead to:

  • reduced morale and erosion of worker commitment
  • breakdown of individual or team relationships
  • reduced efficiency, productivity and profitability
  • poor public image and reputation
  • increased absenteeism and turnover of staff
  • higher costs incurred by the business for recruitment and training new staff, counselling and mediation costs, workers’ compensation claims and legal processes.

Assessing the risk of stress at work

The work health and safety legislation says that, so far as reasonably practicable, businesses are required to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe, without risks to health, including psychological health.

To assist in this process, businesses should use a risk assessment process like the People at Work project, which helps businesses understand and manage their psychosocial risks. Risk assessment tools provide a structured way to consult with workers about psychological risks, and help businesses prioritise risks, and choose appropriate prevention strategies.

Specific risk factors at work that contribute to occupational stress include:

  • high mental, emotional and/or physical work demands,
  • low control over work and the way it is organised
  • low levels of support from supervisors and peers
  • lack of role clarity or increased role confusion
  • poorly managed workplace conflict
  • poorly managed organisational change
  • poor workplace culture
  • low levels of worker recognition and reward.

The role of health and wellbeing in the workplace

Chronic disease risk factors such as smoking, poor nutrition, drugs and alcohol, insufficient physical activity, obesity, and poor mental health can put workers at increased risk of injury or illness at work. Chronic disease risk management can be undertaken in conjunction with health and safety risk management processes.

The Work Health Planning Guide is designed to assist businesses take steps to improve the health and wellbeing of their workers in a workplace setting and help you to work through each stage of developing an effective workplace health and wellbeing program.

Last updated
14 June 2017