Psychological health and well-being in the workplace have become a core focus of Human Resources (HR) policies. Evolutions in how people approach their work and career, along with various scandals, such as the institutionalized harassment of employees at France Telecom (now Orange Telecoms) during the noughties, have caused new questions to arise but also new legislation to emerge. Combined, these have prompted employers to implement various measures to protect the health and safety of their employees.
These measures seem effective, since the overall number of work-related accidents and illnesses has declined over the last few years. However, the data also reveals something between the lines ... Contrary to men, the number of women involved in a workplace-related accident has increased since 2001, whilst occupational illnesses amongst them have increased two-fold since 2011 .
In this article, we seek to understand how and why such discrepancies arise, given that employers are obliged to protect male and female employees from occupational hazards in equal measure. After providing a definition of what constitutes an occupational hazard, along with a brief reminder of what is gender, we will take a look at how the gendered division of jobs and labour, along with social constructs, impact the everyday working lives of women and men with consequences in matters of welfare and well-being.
What are occupational hazards?
Occupational hazards are all kinds of risks that can pose a threat to the health and safety of workers and employees. They may be physical, such as when working from heights, chemical (such as exposure to carcinogens) or radiological (exposure to radiation, for example). Under French law, there also exists a category of occupational hazards known as psychological and social, or psycho-social, risks.
When talking about psychosocial risks, people most often refer to both their causes and their consequences. The causes are linked to organisational and/or relational factors in the workplace, such as:
- Work demands (e.g., workload and timing of deadlines)
- Emotional demands (e.g., dealing with aggressive customers or having to accept negative emotions from others whilst keeping one’s own under control)
- The degree of autonomy or independence one has on the job
- Human relations
- Job security
- Respect for deeply held values
The presence, absence, or cumulative effect of these can have consequences on individuals and work teams alike.
A major such consequence is stress. Stress is a natural physiological reaction amongst human beings, which can occur when we perceive work-related demands as being beyond our ability to cope. Who hasn't felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks one has to do? Who hasn’t been debilitated at the prospect of having to speak in public?
Feeling stress at work happens, and it's normal. The problem is when it lasts. In this case, stress can provoke all sorts of physical and psychological symptoms, including burn-out. This can in turn lead to somatic symptoms, including cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal disorders, amongst others. These can appear even before a burn-out occurs.
We use the word “risk” and “hazard” because there is no such thing as zero-risk. Stress in the workplace can never be eliminated entirely. However, we can minimise and mitigate its occurrence to protect employees from its potentially serious consequences. To understand this concept, let's take an example. In a car, there is no such thing as a “zero-risk” of being involved in an accident. No matter how responsible you are or how well you drive, there will always be external factors which can cause you to be involved in a crash. Yet, each person can reduce the likelihood of being in one by not driving when feeling tired or after having consumed drugs or alcohol.
Occupational risks are first and foremost a person-related issue, along with a public relations and economic one. Indeed, as the importance of psychological well-being at work is increasingly understood, research provided by the French Stress at Work Watchdog , demonstrated that hyperstress affects 24% of employees, with 50% of sick leave also being linked it.
Occupational hazards are also a legal issue. French law requires all forms of risks to be assessed and included in an all-encompassing and comprehensive occupational risk assessment document, which is supposed to list them all. Firms must then implement preventive measures to limit their occurrence. These risks are rarely analysed under a gendered lens, despite this being a legal requirement. Indeed, since 2014, France’s Labour Code stipulates that "the assessment of occupational risks and hazards must take into account the impact of exposure according to gender".
Studies now show that, depending on your gender, you are not necessarily subject to the same workplace occupational hazards. For example, women are far more likely than men to be victims of sexism and sexual harassment. They are 22% more likely than men to suffer from musculoskeletal disorders (compared to men of the same level of seniority, age, and within similar-sized firms and occupational families). Men, for their part, are more subject to physical hardships such as exposure to loud noises or carrying heavy loads. This explains why men account for 80% of employees who are exposed to at least one carcinogenic product in their line of work .
Are most risk assessments biased?
To understand these divisions, one first needs to understand the gendered division of labour. Let's start by clarifying what gender is and, above all, what it implies in terms of differences. Gender, unlike biological sex, refers to a social construct that assigns different social roles to men and women. These roles are assigned based on stereotypes: men are purported to be strong and capable of leadership, able to handle stress and take on responsibilities, whilst women are supposedly agreeable, sociable, empathetic, and better at looking after children. These attributes are often developed in a binary manner: strength is opposed to softness, responsibility to fragility, and being heavily invested in one’s work to being involved in the domestic sphere. What is feminine cannot be masculine and vice-versa.
These stereotypes are built up from the onset of childhood and have an impact on children’s education. They are passed on through games and recreational activities: little girls are encouraged to play with tea sets whilst boys play construction games... but also at school, via family upbringing, in advertising and later on in higher education (if applicable) and the workplace.
This gendered approach to education has an impact on the higher education streams and degrees young men and women study, and subsequently on the line and type of professions they enter. For example, STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields are dominated by men. In addition, many women find it difficult to gain legitimacy in professions where they lack representation, as well as being put off by having to deal with sexism. As a result, some women decide to change their job sector or occupational field to avoid this kind of behaviour. The data speaks for itself: only 13 out of 87 occupational sectors are mixed (i.e., wherein the proportion of men and women falls between 40% and 60%). Women outnumber men in service or care-related professions: healthcare, education, social work and personal services. Conversely, men outnumber women in the IT, construction, industry and finance sectors, where jobs are more technical and physical.
On this point, most new legislation relating to the recognition of various kinds of occupational hazards attempts to deal with physical and chemical risks. This has led to a reduction in occupational illnesses and accidents, but, as we mentioned earlier, this disproportionately affects sectors that are dominated by men. Therefore, women are by and large overlooked by recent legal evolutions.
How can we explain this phenomenon?
First, it can be explained by the fact that women and men do not work in the same professions and that the dangers of female-dominated professions are more difficult to analyse, as they are less visible than those of male-dominated jobs. As mentioned previously, women predominate in service or care professions, such as nursing or caregiving. These jobs generate exposure to people who can be in situations of distress. Dealing with this daily requires skill and a great deal of emotional work, which can itself be a source of stress and therefore a risk that needs to be factored in by employers. Yet, most often, the emotional strain involved is not sufficiently considered in occupational risk-assessment documents. What's more, these skills tend to be taken for granted, and, owing to stereotypes, are wrongly considered as innate in women, who are supposedly “naturally good listeners” and “empathetic”.
What's more, even when women work in the same professions as men, they still face inequality. Researcher Karen Messing  has studied this issue. She explains that the assessment of occupational risks for women seldom considers the specific characteristics of women. This is reinforced by the fact that women are afraid of being noticed for a “bad” reason or being perceived as incompetent if they ask for specific adjustments for themselves. Professor Messing’s team carried out research in a factory which highlighted that carrying heavy loads was not suitable for women. In fact, the angle at which the load was deployed was adapted to an average-sized man, leading to 3 times more work-related injuries and accidents amongst women than men.
More generally, medicine and healthcare are still subject to gender bias. Examples of this are instructive: myocardial infarction is largely under-diagnosed amongst women today. When a woman explains that she is tired and has chest pain, healthcare professionals tend to prescribe anti-anxiety drugs, whereas a man is more likely to be referred to a cardiologist. On the other hand, osteoporosis is currently under-diagnosed in men because it is perceived as a disease that essentially affects post-menopausal women. . In this context, mental health is not spared... women are far more likely to talk about depression than men. Yet, even though certain symptoms may differ, its prevalence among men is also widespread. By and large, there are numerous examples of how gender stereotypes influence healthcare and the way healthcare workers detect and treat afflictions.
Moving on, sexist and sexual violence against women at work is a regular occurrence. Surveys point to at least one in every five women being sexually harassed at their workplace over the course of their career, a significant figure given that for 24% of victims, this has consequences on their physical and/or mental well-being. Worse still, for 22%, it has resulted in having to take time off work.
Last, the inequalities faced by women in the domestic sphere have repercussions on their working lives. The Healthcare and Career Trajectories study shows that single parents are more likely than others to have worse mental health outcomes, with these worsening as the number of children increases . The study yields similar results for women in heterosexual relationships. However, for men who are in relationships, there is no direct link between mental health and the number of children... One hypothesis is that women still largely bear the mental burden of family and caregiving responsibilities within heterosexual couples.
Thus, we understand that statistically-speaking, men and women are unlikely to be involved in the same jobs, and that even when they are, they are not subject to the same demands, due to gender stereotypes, be they within or beyond their workplace. Several studies, in particular two which were carried out in 2003 and 2010  respectively, point towards women being disproportionately exposed to psycho-social risks.
What we understand, then, is that despite efforts made in recent years, the way work is organised and divided is still very much gendered. As a result, so are occupational risks and hazards. Therefore, when trying to prevent them, it's important to take this into account so that we can implement policies that better suit each person’s requirements.
How can companies prevent risks more effectively?
To start, by taking into consideration all the types of hazards that can have an impact on the firm’s workers, including those that are less conspicuous. Examples include emotional requirements, work/life balance, sexism and, more broadly, gender-based and sexual violence.
When assessing these risks, we recommend incorporating a gendered analysis in the comprehensive occupational risk-prevention document. It is possible to produce gendered statistics, which will in turn make it easier to identify pain points and the actions that need to be put in place to mitigate them. Those that spring to mind include reconciling work/life balance, along with better prevention and treating of musculoskeletal disorders, which is the most common occupational illness globally and to which women are more exposed than men.
Beyond the statistics, it is important to take greater account of the differences between men and women, particularly when considering different occupational health policies. For example, menstruation, pregnancy and the menopause are rarely taken into account, even though they can have a major impact on women's lives. Even today, these are regarded as a private matter, yet they may require workspaces to be adapted. For example, menstruation can cause fatigue, pain and cramps for several days each month. Pregnancy is a time of upheaval, both personally and professionally. Companies need to provide support to ensure that women are not discriminated against because of their state of health, or that the rest of the team is not put under undue pressure to make up for any absences or leave. To avoid certain biases at the individual and collective level, it is important to always work and think with mixed working groups when conjuring procedures and documents, such as the occupational risk-prevention paper. Another approach is to integrate a gendered dimension when implementing agreements on well-being at work, to ensure that budgets benefit everyone fairly.
Last, one can raise awareness about the impact of gender stereotypes within the company by providing training programmes to leaders, HR officers, managers but also occupational physicians. This helps tackle gender bias in the organisation, management, and division of work. In addition, beyond sexism, it is essential to prevent and raise awareness of the issue of sexist and sexual violence, which has consequences on employee well-being.
Overall, companies should keep in mind that to ensure their employees’ health & safety, they need to be inclusive with regard to their requirements.
Clinical psychologist and Consultant
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