Feeling stressed? The facts behind illness in the workplace

Work-related stress, anxiety and depression accounts for 18% of sick days, finds ESRI

A female teacher, aged between 35 and 54 years and working long hours is the most likely type of person to suffer from stress and depression, according to new research dissecting illness in the workplace.

In 2013 alone, about 55,000 workers in Ireland were affected by work-related illness, resulting in a total loss of 790,000 productive days.

According to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) - affecting different parts of the body used for movement including the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments -is responsible for the overwhelming majority of absences, at 50 per cent.

This is followed by work-related stress, anxiety and depression (SAD) at 18 per cent.


The research, published on Thursday, found the average length of absence in 2013 was 17 days for stress, anxiety and depression and 15.9 days for MSD. The average duration for all other types of work related illness was 12.8 days.

During the boom economy the rate of these conditions was far higher than in the recessionary period, although the ERSI does not offer any immediate explanation as to why that might have been the case.

Data taken from the Quarterly National Household Survey between 2002 and 2013 was used to analyse risk factors associated with SAD and MSD.

When it comes to the former condition, women were found to be at higher risk at 5.8 per 1,000 workers compared to 4 per 1,000 male workers.

Workers aged between 35 and 54 are most likely to succumb to the illness with the risk highest for those employed in the education sector, followed by health, public administration, transport and “other services”, including finance, information and communications.

Agriculture, construction and industry have the lowest risk levels, while the self-employed have a lower risk of SAD than employees.

“There is a greater risk of SAD illness for those working long weekly hours,” the ESRI said. “Those working over 50 hours are three times more likely to experience SAD than those working less than 30 hours. Shift workers have a greater risk.”

As for MSD, the research found no gender difference for risk although those workers aged between 35 to 64 years are 2.5 times more likely to experience problems.

Conversely to SAD, the risk of MSD is greatest in the construction and agriculture sector, as well as in health services. The risk is lowest in education, finance, information and communications. Shift workers and night workers have a greater risk of MSD.

Reflecting on its findings, the ESRI said there was a need to consider measures that reduce the risk of MSD, particularly among an ageing workforce, while the need for greater awareness around mental health is signalled by SAD levels.

Addressing the “long-hours culture” in workplaces is considered likely to reduce SAD.

Report author Helen Russell, an associate research professor at the ESRI, said: "The research findings point to a need for targeted measures to address work-related illnesses, not only to assist workers experiencing difficulties, but also to tackle the issues of lost productivity, and the associated costs for health care and social protection.

“As the rate of work-related illness increased during the boom years, it is especially important to consider implementing such measures as the economic recovery accelerates.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times