New research shows that a work/life imbalance can be a pain in the neck for hospital workers – literally. Nurses and hospital employees working long hours or the graveyard shift are more likely to experience difficulty managing their work and home obligations while also facing increased musculoskeletal neck pain, the research suggests.
The new study from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) indicates that higher levels of work-family conflict may lead to an increased risk of these health care workers experiencing neck pain or other types of musculoskeletal pain. The study fits into a growing body of evidence showing that conflict between increased workloads or long hours can spill over into domestic life and adversely affect workers on the front lines of patient care.
“Work-family conflict can be distracting and stressful for hospital employees,” says lead author of the study Seung-Sup Kim, a postdoctoral scientist and professorial lecturer in environmental and occupational health at SPHHS. “Hospitals that adopt policies to reduce the juggling act might gain a host of benefits including a more productive workforce, one that is not slowed down by chronic aches and pains.”
Hospital workers, and especially nurses, often pull double shifts or work the night shift, and in some cases are handling heavy volumes of very sick patients. The conflict between on-the-job duties and home responsibilities – such as taking calls about a forgetful parent who has wandered off – can, as this study suggests, lead to chronic bodily pain and possibly other health problems.
The consequences of that unhealthy cycle are serious and affect not just hospitals but society at large, Kim suggested. He said that the work-home conflict might exacerbate shortages of key health professionals caused when burned-out nurses or other health professionals retire early or leave the field because of the stress. Workers distracted by issues at home or by ongoing muscular pain might be more likely to call in sick or, if they do show up for work, might provide less than attentive care, he speculated.
Kim and principal investigator, Glorian Sorensen, Ph.D., Professor of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard School of Public Health and other researchers conducted a survey among 2,000 hospital workers who provided direct patient care in two large Boston hospitals; the team included a total of 1,199 patient care workers in the current analysis. They asked workers if they agreed with statements like: “The amount of time my job takes up makes it difficult to fulfill family or personal responsibilities” and “My job produces strain that makes it difficult to fulfill my family or personal responsibilities.”
In addition, the researchers used a questionnaire to assess how much the participants in the study experienced musculoskeletal pain during the previous 3 months. They took note of factors that might affect the outcome of the study, such as the amount of on-the-job lifting or pulling, which could strain muscles and lead to pain.
The study shows that nurses and other employees who reported high conflict between their job duties and obligations at home had about a 2 times greater chance of suffering from neck or shoulder pain in the last 3 months. Workers with the highest work-life imbalance had nearly a 3 times greater risk of reporting arm pain during that period.
All told, the researchers found that workers who reported lots of conflict had more than a 2 times greater chance of experiencing any kind of musculoskeletal pain. At the same time, the research found no lasting link between this kind of ongoing conflict and lower back pain, which might be caused when hospital workers lift heavy patients on a regular basis.
“Hospital employees who don’t have to juggle extreme work hours and family obligations might be happier and more productive on the job,” Kim said. “And that’s a win-win situation that will benefit not just hospitals but also workers, patients – and family members.”
The study was published in the online version of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine September 27.