PARIS – Stress in the workplace, an established problem in the post-industrial West, is now emerging as a social ill in the developing world, too. Countries from Asia and the southern hemisphere are now carefully – and officially – looking at the psycho-social problems and economic consequences linked to work-induced stress.

Still, for a problem that is all too real, the statistics on the subject are surprisingly scarce. Quantifying stress is of course quite difficult, but the figures available today come only from rich countries. In Europe, nearly 30% of the total number of workers describe themselves as being “exposed to stress,” according to a study conducted in 2009 by Eurostat, the statistics office of the European Union. In the United States, the cost of stress in the workplace – absenteeism, reduced productivity, sick leave, etc. – was an estimated $300 billion in 2010.     

Concerned about the lack of reliable information on this issue in developing countries, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) declared April 28 the world day for safety and health at work. The agency also launched a study at the beginning of 2011, expected to be concluded within a year.

Discreetly, China has also recently turned to the ILO for information on how to best manage psycho-social risks. African countries have started showing some interest on the question. In Latin America, a network led by Columbia, Mexico and Argentina has been looking into the issue of moral harassment of workers, including mobbing.      

For Valentina Forastieri, the ILO specialist in occupational health and safety in charge of the study, “the industrial restructuring that followed the economic crisis has triggered a certain number of lay-offs. But those who did manage to keep their jobs have had to cope with an increased level of stress because of longer working hours and the higher expectations of their employers.”

In its 2010 report on “emerging risks”, the ILO spoke about dangers linked to new working conditions, and about the miserable existence of migrant workers and those toiling in the informal economy.  

“Globalization is a source of stress because it involves increased competition,” says Luc Brunet, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Montreal. “But the level of stress is not the same everywhere, it depends on the work environment, or the way in which employees think they are treated, and their employers’ experience in dealing with these kind of complaints.”

Stress often leads to drug or alcohol use in the workplace, a phenomenon observed in a number of countries, France being among those most affected, according to experts.

But methods used to deal with this psycho-social risk cannot be identical for all nations. “We can speak about a sort of international awareness, but there is unfortunately no miracle recipe for this,” says Stéphane Pimbert, general director of the French National Institute for Research and Security. “This is not the same thing as installing a metal cover on a machine to prevent workers from cutting off their fingers.” 

Stress aside, physical illnesses such as repetitive strain injuries (which represent the majority of work-related ailments) or skin diseases are considered to be of psychological origin.

“In the past, health in the workplace was linked to the type of activity performed; today stress and fatigue stem from what employees no longer have the time to do, because of the increased number and different nature of their tasks,” says Yves Clot, from the psychology department of the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. “Work today requires more commitment on the part of workers, but the very organization of work makes this impossible, which leaves employees facing a very painful paradox.”


photo- Lyle Vincent