Sickness, Sleep, and the Workplace: Occupational Stress in Uncertain Times

by Lindsay Ward on October 29, 2011

Despite the popularity of the aphorism that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” evidence continues to mount that organizations are unwilling or unable to successfully integrate preventative solutions into their occupational health strategies. Earlier this month, a study released by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), an HR research firm headquartered in London, UK, concluded that stress has become the most common cause of employees’ taking long-term sick leave in England (

In periods of economic recession, like the one we face right now, occupational stress can be a problem for both workers and their employers. The CIPD study found that job insecurity contributed to significant increases in presenteeism, or working while sick, in the year 2010. Of course, the more sick employees show up to work, the more likely all employees are to get sick and stay home or otherwise decline in productivity. Similarly troubling, employers planning to fire or lay off large numbers of workers in the next six months saw a 20% increase in mental health related complaints among their employees over the study period. Though nearly a third of employers report having increased their wellness and prevention efforts as a result of the floundering economy, this still leaves two-thirds of the workforce unacknowledged as victims of increasing workplace stress.

Besides the increase in employees working while sick, or citing stress as an inciting cause of long-term absence from work, long hours at the office can have an even more direct negative impact on occupational health status. A 2009 experimental study, carried out in 153 healthy subjects, found that those individuals who sleep for less than seven hours per night on average, or with less than 92% efficiency, were two to five times more likely to develop a cold after inoculation with a high dose of rhinovirus (Cohen, et al., 2009). The authors controlled for external variables like season of the year, body mass index, socioeconomic status, and pre-challenge viral antibody titers in order to make sure that the observed trend was truly attributable to sleep pattern differences.

In keeping with what seems to be the Risk Science Center’s theme for this week—preventing intelligent people from believing dumb things like “workplace stress is a good motivator, nothing more”—I implore anyone with the authority to do so to take employee and colleague wellness into account when making important decisions about risk and occupational health.


Cohen, et al. “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.” Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):62-67.

Related posts:

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