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NIOSH Program Portfolio


Work Organization and Stress-Related Disorders

Program Description

Program Mission

The mission of the NIOSH research program in work organization and stress-related disorders is to eliminate occupational stress, diseases, injuries, and fatalities in the workforce through a focused program of research and prevention addressing work organization risk factors for these outcomes. The program strives to fulfill its mission through:

  • High Quality Research: NIOSH will continually strive for high quality research and prevention activities that will lead to improvement in work organization and reductions in occupational stress, illness, and injury in the workforce.
  • Practical Solutions: The NIOSH program on work organization and stress-related disorders is committed to the development of practical solutions to the complex problems that cause occupational stress, illness, and injury in the workforce.
  • Partnerships: We recognize that collaborative efforts in partnership with labor, industry, government, academia, and other stakeholders are usually the best means of achieving successful outcomes. Fostering these partnerships is a cornerstone of the NIOSH program on work organization and stress-related disorders.

Program Content

Work organization and job stress are topics of growing concern in the occupational safety and health field. Job stress results when there is a poor match between job demands and the capabilities, resources, or needs of workers. Stress-related disorders encompass a broad array of conditions, including frank psychological disorders (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder) and other emotional disturbances (dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension, etc.), maladaptive behaviors (aggression, substance abuse), and cognitive impairment. In turn, these conditions may lead to poor work performance or even injury. Job stress is also associated with various biological reactions that may lead ultimately to compromised health, such as cardiovascular disease.

Stress is a prevalent and costly problem in today's workplace. About one-third of workers report high levels of stress, and high levels of stress are associated with substantial increases in health service utilization. Additionally, periods of disability due to job stress tend to be much longer than disability periods for other occupational injuries and illnesses (see Occupational Safety and Health Risks for more information about the prevalence and burden of job stress).

Attention to stress at work has intensified in the wake of sweeping changes in the organization of work that are feared to expose workers to heightened risk of stress. The expressions "work organization" or "organization of work" refer to the nature of the work process (the way jobs are designed and performed) and to the organizational practices (e.g., management and production methods and accompanying human resource policies) that influence the design of jobs. Organizational downsizing and restructuring, dependence on temporary and contractor-supplied labor, and adoption of lean production practices are examples of recent trends in organizational practices that have been the subject of increased scrutiny in job stress research. Concerns have arisen that these trends may adversely influence aspects of job design (e.g., work schedules, work load demands, job security) that are associated with risk of job stress.

There is also growing appreciation of the fact that work organization can have broader implications for the safety and health of workers - not just for stress-related outcomes. For example, long hours of work may increase exposures to chemical and physical hazards in the workplace, or night shifts may expose workers to heightened risk of violence.

These causal pathways between work organization and worker safety and health are illustrated in the figure below. This figure portrays a somewhat broader causal model, showing that new organizational practices of concern are the products of various background forces, including the growing global economy, changing worker demographics and the labor supply, and technological innovation (see the Economic Factors section for more information about the relationship between these forces and the changing organization of work).

graph of causal pathways between work organization and worker safety and health

Refer to the NIOSH report The Changing Organization of Work and the Safety and Health of Working People for a more expansive discussion of the changing organization of work and associated risks of stress, illness, and injury in the workplace.

The primary thrust of the NIOSH research program on work organization and stress-related disorders is to improve our understanding of how the organization of work is changing, the risks posed by these changes, and ways to reduce these risks. However, as annotated below, the program encompasses a wide array of research interests ranging from the improvement of research methods, to economic analysis, and to underlying mechanisms.

Elements of the NIOSH research portfolio in work organization and stress include the following:

  • Epidemiologic studies to explore how changing organizational practices influence risk factors for job stress and other hazardous exposures at work
  • Development of improved methods and tools for job stress research, including surveillance instruments to better understand how the organization of work is changing
  • Studies to further understand how workplace stress contributes to illness, injury at work, and disease development, including study of intervening factors and laboratory-based research of underlying biological mechanisms
  • Investigations of stress in understudied populations, occupations and sectors
  • Studies to better understand the socioeconomic cost and burden of job stress
  • Studies to identify effective multilevel intervention strategies to prevent stress at work

Visit the NIOSH Topic Page on Stress at Work for further information and access to NIOSH reports on job stress and the organization of work.

Research to Practice

We believe that our research only realizes its true value when put into practice. Every research project within the NIOSH program on work organization and stress-related disorders formulates a strategy to promote the transfer and translation of research findings into prevention practices and products that will be adopted in the workplace. For more information about Research to Practice (r2p), see the NIOSH R2P page.

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NIOSH Program Portfolio:

Work Organization and Stress-Related Disorders

clock, stressed man