Work represents the main means of obtaining economic resources and is also central to individual identity, social roles and status. However it may also carry risks for mental and physical health, and its nature, quality and social context should be taken into account in weighing beneficial and harmful effects. Unfortunately, there is a major unutilized potential in exploring the association between working life or occupation and health.

“There is a major unutilized potential in exploring the association between working life or occupation and health”

Under-employment, long-term unemployment, gender- or other demographic inequalities/biases, poor working conditions and lack of job security, all negatively affect health, social cohesion and may hinder economic growth. Moreover, occupational exposures are related to a significant proportion of diseases in adults, including cancer, musculoskeletal diseases, mental disorders, cardiorespiratory diseases, among others.

On the one hand, the demographic shift, with an ageing and increasingly diverse European workforce, makes the impact of work on healthy ageing and disease prognosis a key issue. On the other hand, rapid changes in employment patterns and exposures along with occupational restructuring and the increasing use of new technologies further increase the importance of research in occupational health.

Exploring the association between working life and health

It has been estimated that 1 in 4 of European citizens of working age suffer from a chronic health problem, which is the premier reason for workers to exit paid employment with large social and financial consequences. Unfortunately, little information is available on how work affects co-morbidity, the ability of workers with chronic disease to remain in paid employment, and the interplay between extended working careers, increasing longevity, and functional capacity.

“Younger people are especially vulnerable to changing work patterns”

Almost half of the European citizens of working age (about 250 million) regularly work alternate shifts and long working hours, and the public health of its effects may be substantial. They have been associated to an elevated cancer risk and numerous other health and psycho-social problems, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, mood disorders, miscarriage, accidents, divorce, and chronic sleep deprivation. It is to be noted that younger people are especially vulnerable to changing work patterns and show high rates of depressive symptoms and lack of confidence in the future.

Mothers often fail to return to full-time work after maternity leave, thus contributing to the loss of talent from the workforce, women’s emancipation and gender equality, and economic resources. Those who go back to work, are exposed to high stress levels in the attempt to balance conflicting responsibilities, impacting on both their health and career opportunities.

Finally, occupational exposure to a wide range of known or suspected carcinogenic chemical or physical agents remains a key concern. Scientific uncertainty regarding the associations between International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Group 2A and 2B “occupational chemicals” (of which there are over 100) and risk of specific cancers has led to delayed regulatory action.

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Videos on Occupational Health

OMEGA-NET Video List
Learn more on occupational health in the OMEGA-NET Video List section. (Photo: Sara Kurfeß / Unsplash)