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Working Yourself Sick?

Dutch study examines risk and causes of work-related fatigue

TUESDAY, May 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Being "sick of work" is a common complaint from those who've reached their frustration limit on any given day.

However, for some people, the phrase can be literally true -- and a potentially serious health issue to boot.

A new study in the Netherlands found between 10 percent and 14 percent of previously healthy employees suffered work-related fatigue over the course of a year. The researcher describes it as prolonged fatigue.

"That's not the kind of acute fatigue which will be over after one night of sleep or good rest," says study author Ute Bültmann, who's with the department of epidemiology at Maastricht University.

Signs and symptoms of this prolonged fatigue include a reduction in a person's concentration, motivation and physical activity.

Out of the 8,000 people in this study, almost 14 percent of previously healthy female employees and about 10 percent of previously healthy male workers developed prolonged fatigue within one year. The study participants, aged 18 to 65, filled out a series of questionnaires that measured their mental well-being.

The findings are part of a six-year national research program examining fatigue at work in the Netherlands that is to be completed this year.

Bültmann says the definition and assessment of fatigue can be difficult, and it's been a controversial topic over the years.

"Our definition is that people are burned out; they are unable to do things they want to do," Bültmann says.

This study also looked into causes of prolonged fatigue in workers. Bültmann found that a lack of freedom to organize their own work and lack of support from colleagues almost doubled a worker's risk.

Some of the factors were gender-specific. For women, a demanding job and conflicts at work were related to an increased risk of fatigue. In men, specific risk factors included physically demanding work, little support from immediate supervisors, and high emotional demands, such as accidents, crime or fights at work.

Lifestyle can play a significant role in causing prolonged fatigue, Bültmann adds. For men, being overweight and being inactive both increased the risk by 1.3 times. Women who were underweight were three times more likely to suffer fatigue than women of normal weight.

This kind of information is important to better understand what causes work fatigue and how to prevent it.

"In our study, we identified some factors which are involved in the onset, so this is very valuable information for us because it gives us some insight. When we know which factors are actually involved in the onset of the disease, this information is a prerequisite to developing preventive measures," Bültmann says.

There are other potential factors still being investigated, including personal characteristics. Bültmann notes that two people may have the same or similar workload and lifestyle factors, but only one will suffer work fatigue.

"That's very interesting because maybe one person can cope better with these kinds of problems than the other," she says.

Work fatigue is recognized as a serious problem in the Netherlands, Bültmann says. About a third of people who receive work disability benefits are off work because of mental health reasons.

In the United States, there's concern about the growing increase in the number of hours put in by workers, a contributing factor in fatigue, says Roger Rosa, a senior scientist and research psychologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

A report released last year by the United Nations' International Labour Organization says the average American worked 1,978 hours in 2000, compared to 1,942 hours in 1990. That amounts to almost an extra week of work a year.

The average Canadian, Australian, Japanese or Mexican worker put in about 100 hours less per year in 2000 -- almost 2.5 weeks less time on the job over the course of the year.

Many American workers are feeling stressed. Nearly a third of American employees often or very often feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, according to a survey released last year by the Families and Work Institute in New York City.

Rosa says a national U.S. survey is ongoing to gather information about a variety of work stress issues, such as job demands, working hours, employee control over their work, and home-work conflicts. The first reports on the survey results should be published later this year, he adds.

What To Do: Here's some information and advice about work stress from the American Psychological Association and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health>.

SOURCES: Ute Bültmann, Ph.D., department of epidemiology, Maastricht University, Netherlands; Roger Rosa, Ph.D., senior scientist and research psychologist, National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, Washington, D.C.
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