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Psychosocial factors play a key role in musculoskeletal disorders (MSD’s) and the way in which work is designed can directly influence the capacity for employees to sleep well and recover between work cycles. In this article, we take a closer look at how MSD’s affect the UK workplace and, how well scoped and formulated workplace research can help to deliver efficiently designed roles and tasks.

Who, what, why, where, when and how?

MSDs are defined as injuries, damage or disorders of the joints or soft tissues in the upper  limbs, lower limbs or the back. In the UK during 2016/2017, 8.9 million working days were lost due to work related MSDs (Health & Safety Executive [HSE], 2018). The top four highest risk sectors for sustaining a WRMSDs are Construction, Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing, Transportation & Storage and Human Health & Social Care. The causes of WRMSDs are based across a number of factors which include:

  • Poor or fixed posture
  • Repetitive movements
  • Grip pressure/use of force
  • Psychosocial factors
  • Workload management issues

Their onset can be acute or chronic and symptoms can include aches, pains, joint stiffness, pins and needles and observable changes such as swelling. If awareness training is delivered and integrated into the company culture, individuals and team members are more likely to identify early onset acute WRMSDs and take action. If overlooked or ignored, symptoms can become chronic leading to pain, sickness absence, surgical intervention and long term-disability (Harrison & Harris, 2015). The HSE have published a wealth of free resources for employers including guides and assessment tools designed to collect workplace data and evaluate risks. Not all WRMSDs can be prevented, but early detection and responsive strategies can help to minimise their impact.

So, what’s sleep got to do with it?

Although work design psychosocial factors are complex, they are valuable; ranging from personality to stress, to the organisation of a job. There are three mechanisms which may connect psychosocial factors to the musculoskeletal system: Organic changes, pain perception and sociopsychological mechanisms. One of the most influential occupational stress models used to help understand how these factors interact, is the Job Demand-Control model (Karasek, 1979). It suggests that strain is an individual’s response to the imbalance between job demands and decision latitude, giving rise to a feeling of reduced control over the work environment. Research has indicated that high levels of strain can disrupt sleep patterns. Hormones which stimulate musculoskeletal repair are at their peak during deep sleep phases, so when sleep is lighter and disturbed, these hormone levels can fluctuate. (Violante, Armstrong & Kilbom, 2015).

Work design: Research & Practice

A recent work design review by Parker, Morgeson & Johns (2017) suggests that whilst academic research supports improved work design, in practice employee surveys reveal some key factors which can give rise to work related strain. The British Skills Survey (2006) reported that  58.9% of employees worked in teams, only 14.2% of those were in self-directed teams. The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (2010) further revealed that one fifth of jobs have poor intrinsic quality and, the same figure again involves highly demanding work. So, in practical terms, standardising work and reducing autonomy or employee discretion when new jobs are designed, is not necessarily supportive of optimum work design from a psychological perspective.

However, the future of work design is bright. Employment stress and strain factors are taking front and centre position in policy making and debates from both economic and health perspectives. Parker et al (2017), argue that there is a growing need to complete assessments of work characteristics when assessing job control demands including emotional labour. Shining a light on the social, relational, cognitive and physical aspects of a role when designing it, could all help to contribute to a more well rounded job, giving employees the opportunity to leave their working day behind for a restful night’s sleep.

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Harrison, G., & Harris, A. (2015). Work-related musculoskeletal disorders in ultrasound: Can you reduce risk? Ultrasound: Journal of the British Medical Ultrasound Society23(4), 224.

Health & Safety Executive (HSE). (2018). Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs). Retrieved from

Karasek, R. A. (1979). Job Demands, Job Decision Latitude, and Mental Strain: Implications for Job Redesign. Administrative Science Quarterly24(2), 285.

Parker, S., Morgeson, F., & Johns, G. (2017) 100 Years of work design research: Looking back and looking forward. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3) 403-420

Violante, F., Armstrong, T., & Kilbom, A. (2003) Occupational Ergonomics: Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Upper Limb and Back(pp. 129–148). London: Taylor and Francis.


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