Covariation between workplace physical and psychosocial stressors: evidence and implications for occupational health research and prevention

Ergonomics. 2001 Jun 10;44(7):696-718. doi: 10.1080/00140130119943.


There is increasing interest in distinguishing the effects of physical and psychosocial workplace stressors on the aetiology of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Modest associations have been found between psychosocial stressors and MSD, such as intensive load, monotonous work and low job control. Interpretation of these results has been limited by likely covariation between physical and psychosocial stressors. This investigation examined exposure covariation among blue- and white-collar workers employed in a mass production manufacturing environment (N = 410). Physical stressors were assessed from questionnaire and accelerometry. Psychosocial stressors were assessed from questionnaire. Pearson and Spearman correlation coefficients were computed. An exploratory factor analysis procedure identified possible common factors linking specific physical and psychosocial stressors. Moderate to high correlations between some physical and psychosocial stressors showed evidence of covariation both across and within groups. Covariation was strongest among blue-collar production and low-status office workers. Factor analysis results showed considerable shared variance between some physical and psychosocial stressors, such as repetition and job control, suggesting that these disparate stressors manifest from common work organization factors that govern the structure of work. While recognizing the conceptual differences between physical and psychosocial stressors, these results call attention to the strong empirical relationships that can exist between some stressors in the workplace setting. To guard against ambiguous study findings that can occur when exposures are mixed, it is critical that future epidemiologic studies include information about the degree of association between task-level stressors. Future research on work organization determinants of task-level stressors, and their coincident occurrence in jobs with greater specialization, may provide promising new insights into the nature of risk for MSD and effective prevention strategies.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Occupations
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Stress, Physiological / epidemiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • United States / epidemiology