OHS Canada Magazine

The link between psychosocial risk factors and musculoskeletal injury

Chronic stress is a lot like a motor that is revved too high for too long, and after a period of time, can have a cascading effect on the body.


Statistics provided by the Mental Health Commission of Canada show that one in five Canadians experience a mental health problem or illness each year, with stress and trauma sited as the primary causes. This is equivalent to 500,000 employees unable to work every week.

It was further reported that psychological health problems cost the Canadian economy approximately $51 billion per year — $20 billion of which results from work-related causes. In addition, 47 per cent of working Canadians consider their work to be the most stressful part of daily life.

Keep in mind that these findings are pre-pandemic.

The stress response is a primitive survival mechanism intended for short-term duration. For example, when the deer outruns the wolf, 15 minutes later it goes aback to grazing.

Yet, when humans regularly turn on the stress response (autocratic leadership, production demands, information overload, pandemics, teenagers, divorce, traffic, news) and can’t turn it off, to the body, it’s just like constantly being chased by “the wolf.”

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The alarming fact is most workers are living in an environment of stress 70 per cent of the time.

Stress at work is predictive of workplace incidents in general, since a person living in stress is living in survival mode.

When in stress, blood is sent from the forebrain to the hindbrain, causing it to disconnect from the prefrontal cortex and to fire incoherently.

In other words, the brain isn’t working optimally. As a result, workers are more likely to become aggressive or reactive and make errors in judgment, such as taking shortcuts.

They are also less likely to perceive hazards and as a result experience more injuries and incidents.

Chronic stress is a lot like a motor that is revved too high for too long, and after a period of time, can have a cascading effect on the body.

In addition, stress-induced physiological factors can be linked to musculoskeletal injuries (MSI) and disorders:

Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol continually coursing through the body catabolize and harden tissues and arteries causing greater muscle tension. This is turn results in symptoms such as stiff muscles and high blood pressure.

Stress sustained over time causes the body to release cortisol, inhibiting muscle repair and immune system function so bodies cannot recover properly.

Stress-induced increased blood pressure can lead to pressure in joints, specifically on ligaments, nerves and
tendons, increasing the risk for carpal tunnel syndrome.

High stress in the body can result in decreased sensitivity to pain, resulting in workers pushing themselves beyond their body’s physical capacity.

When in stress, the pupil of the eye opens or dilates. This can result in greater sensitivity to light.

A worker experiencing stress or frustration may overexert their body, resulting in muscle strains and sprains.

What can management do? 

Management can have a significant impact on workplace psychosocial risk factors and reduce related MSI in the workplace.

Consider your organizational culture. Is it one of civility and respect? Or is it driven by autocratic leadership, constant high pressure, and fear?   

Is there clear leadership and expectations? Or are workers being set up to fail with unclear standards?

Psychological risk factors can be effectively managed by establishing psychological competencies and requirements for managers, as well as training and supports implemented for workers.

Workload management and engaging workers through growth and development plans are other ways that psychosocial risk factors can be mitigated in the workplace.

When employees feel safe, valued, and rewarded for doing a great job, the results are less injuries and incidents — along with improved morale, reduced turnover and, ultimately, improved financial results for the organization.

Theo Heineman, CRSP, CHSC, B.Sc.Ag., founder and CEO of 1Life Workplace Safety Solutions in Winnipeg, is a certified NeuroChangeSolutions consultant and certified trainer in the science and practice of heart coherence by the HeartMath Institute. She is a regular columnist for OHS Canada.

This Neurosafety commentary was published in the September/October 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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