RSI may cause sick worker syndrome
Alok Jha, science correspondent
Wednesday October 26, 2005
...scientists say the nerve damage caused by repetitive motion could be a cause of "sick worker" syndrome and such symptoms as poor performance, fatigue and depression.
Ann Barr and Mary Barbe of the College of Health Professions at Temple University in Philadelphia studied the early changes in nerves caused by repetitive activities. They found the injuries are caused by the action of proteins called cytokines, which help start the inflammation. The proteins appeared in rat models of RSI within three weeks.
As the injury progressed, more cytokines were produced at the inflammation site. The researchers found unexpected links between the production of cytokines and the rats' psychosocial responses. "At three weeks, even before the rats experienced pain from their wrist injuries, we watched them self-regulate their work behaviour," Dr Barr said. "With inflammatory proteins in the bloodstream, they began to slack off." After five to eight weeks, many of the rats curled up and slept between tasks.
The researchers said people who took days off work owing to undefined symptoms or slowed down their work rate may be suffering from the effects of the raised cytokine levels. A low-grade depression may also set in. As the proteins appear soon after nerve damage first happens, when actual pain is rare, many people might not make the connection between the "off" feeling and possible RSI. It could take months before the nerve damage is bad enough to be noticed.
Dr Barbe said: "Cytokines are self-protective. This undefined feeling of malaise may be telling the body to take some time off to heal, before things get worse."
As I've mentioned before, my job with the Postal Service has in recent months entailed a lot of overtime work. A lot. One of the reasons for this is that the current bosses in charge seem to be of the school of management that it's cheaper to work current employees longer hours at overtime rates than it is to hire new employees and pay them regular rates plus benefits. (Yes, working for USPS still has benefits like retirement and health isurance, much as the idea makes upper management gnash their teeth and rend their sackcloth.)
The overtime has been across the board, affecting almost all employees. (There are some who are on restricted hours/duties because of previous injuries or health problems.)
What has also happened across the board has been an increase in the number of sick calls, of people begging off work. Before all the overtime started, out of a workforce of approximately a hundred carriers at the station, there'd usually be three, four, maybe five people calling in sick. Since the overtime has grown by leaps and bounds in recent months, the sick calls have grown apace; it's not unusual anymore to have eight or nine people (once, thirteen) call in sick.
With more sick calls, the overtime problem grows even worse. With that many more delivery routes not manned, the people who have shown up for work have to work even longer hours. Management doesn't like paying time-and-a-half for overtime, even if they think it's cheaper in the long run than hiring more employees. They like it even less when employees work past ten hours in a day; after that point, employees start earning double-pay. And a lot of carriers have been working past the ten-hour mark.
And delivering the mail entails a lot of repetitive work: Sorting mail in the mornings, and delivering it the rest of the day.
The cytokine findings in the study noted above certainly seem to explain a lot of the increase in sick calls. Long hours, much of it in repetitive tasks, for days on end, and surprise, a lot of the workers feel like crap. And some of them finally call in sick, because they feel just plain friggin' worn out. (While a lot of others -- like, say, me -- will continue to report to work, and drag themselves through each day, even when they feel like crap too.)
The obvious solution would seem, duh, to hire more employees to try to eliminate/minimize overtime and the excessive sick calls that seem to result. But, as noted, this is a solution upper management doesn't seem willing to entertain at this time.
(And a lot of employees appreciate the overtime money. As I noted in an earlier post, my overtime money is largely going for debt reduction purposes, and should leave me debt-and-mortgage-free and able to retire in about four years. Without the overtime, I'd probably have to continue working several additional years before I could retire. But those extra hours spent working are hours that can't be spent with your home, your family, your life. And that gets to be a major, major drag sometimes.)