Depression and Fatigue Are Putting Women Workers in Danger

Workplace injury is often seen as a physical health problem, but a new study shows that mental and behavioral health play a role in the prevalence of women getting hurt at work.

[Photo: A factory worker at the New Balance shoe factory operates machinery.]
There are 23,000 on-the-job injuries in the United States each day. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

New research suggests depression and fatigue can lead to more workplace injuries for women—a finding that could change the way employers approach workplace safety.

Roughly 60 percent of women who sustained a work-related injury reported experiencing mental or behavioral health issues before getting injured, according to a study published February in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health’s Center for Health, Work and Environment. For men, that number was only 33 percent.

Men in the study were more likely to experience a work-related injury than women, but mental and behavioral health challenges like depression and poor sleeping patterns did not affect the rate at which men became injured. The correlation, however, was present in the women researchers examined.

The study examined the injury claims data of 314 businesses from a variety of industries in Colorado. Researchers looked at nearly 17,000 workers ranging from those who earn low wages to high-level executives.

“The findings of our study demonstrate that keeping workers safe requires more than your typical safety program. It requires an integrated approach that connects health, well-being, and safety,” Dr. Natalie Schwatka, the study’s lead author, said in a press release.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 23,000 on-the-job injuries occur each day in the United States. That’s around 8.5 million work-related injuries each year that, in addition to affecting individuals’ health, have large economic implications. These injuries are responsible for the loss of approximately $183 billion in productivity and $67 billion in medical costs per year, according to a 2011 study in the Milbank Quarterly.

Additional research needs to be done to determine why conditions like depression and fatigue have this added effect on women, but this finding could affect a large portion of the population. Around 12 million women in the United States experience clinical depression each year, according to Mental Health America.

The different experiences reported by men and women may not be biological, said Dr. Schwatka. “There [are] a number of social and cultural factors that may explain why women reported having more behavioral health concerns than men did. Men generally admit to fewer health concerns,” she said in the release. “And women may face different stresses at work and at home. It’s something that is worth exploring in future research.”

While every person faces a unique set of stressors at work and home that may lead to negative health outcomes, a recent study out of the Journal of Accounting and Economics identified one particular stressor that leads to workplace injury. Workers were more likely to get injured when the company was facing an earnings deadline, according to research out of the University of California at Los Angeles’ Anderson School of Management and the University of Texas at Dallas’ Jindal School of Management. In fact, the study found the pressure to meet an earnings forecast was associated with a 5 to 15 percent increase in workplace injury or illness.

“When managers believe their company may be close to missing earnings benchmarks, they may increase employees’ workloads by pressuring them to work faster or for longer hours,” the study’s authors, Judson Caskey and N. Bugra Ozel, said in a press release. “In addition, employees may compromise their own safety by overexerting themselves or ignoring safety protocols that slow workflows. All of these behaviors can undermine worker safety.”

Workplace injury is often seen as a physical health problem, but as these studies shows, mental and behavioral health play a role in the prevalence of employees getting hurt at work. And while men and women reported different experiences in the Colorado study, Dr. Schwatka told Rewire.News that employers shouldn’t only focus on improving the workplace for women.

“I think people’s initial reaction to the study headline is to start questioning what employers need to do differently for their female workforce,” she said. “However, I think employers should consider what they can do for the behavioral/mental health of their entire workforce. Just because men do not report behavioral health concerns as frequently as women, doesn’t mean they don’t experience them.”

She told Rewire.News that workplaces can improve “by reflecting upon work-related sources of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and lack of sleep, such as poor work/life balance, and work to mitigate their effects.”