Are We Working Ourselves to Death?

Work can give structure and meaning to life. But working conditions can also trigger or accelerate the symptoms of ill health - physical and mental - that feed back into our productivity and earning capacity, as well as into our social and family relationships. In fact, an alarmingly large number of people appear to be at risk.

Of the EU's 160 million-strong labour force, 56% report working at very high speeds, and 60% to tight deadlines. More than a third have no influence on task order, and 40% perform monotonous tasks. This probably contributes to a host of health-related problems: 15% of the workforce complain of headaches, 33% of backache, 23% of fatigue, and 23% of neck and shoulder pains, plus a host of other illnesses, including life-threatening ones.

Sustained work-related stress is also an important determinant of depressive disorders - the fourth-largest cause of disease world-wide. They are expected to rank second by 2020, behind only heart disease. In the EU, the cost of these and related mental health problems is estimated to average 3-4% of GNP, amounting to approximately 265 billion euros annually.