Together, researchers David Hummels and Chong Xiang of Purdue University and Jakob Munch of the University of Copenhagen studied manufacturing firms in Denmark during a period of increased export demand between 1996 and 2006.
They matched individual health data with worker-firm data to uncover the relationship between increased productivity and expectations and the effort and illness of staff.
“Rising exports makes individual workers less healthy by increasing their injury and sickness rates,” said the paper titled No Pain, No Gain: The Effects of Exports on Effort, Injury, and Illness
When employees were expected to increase their productivity levels dramatically, this led to three effects, the study found:
- Staff work for longer hours and take fewer sick days
- Staff experience higher rates of injury
- Female workers have higher rates of sickness
A 10% boost in the number of required exports at the firms affected women more than men, the research found. Female rates of injury were boosted by 6.4%, severe depression by 2.5%, the use of anti-blood clot medication by 7.7% and hospitalisations due to heart attacks or strokes by 17.4%.
As for men, the same increase in the number of exports actually decreased the chance of severe depression. The researchers attributed this to the “subjective” state of depression and effects such as higher wages on happiness.
Although the number of sick days taken was fewer overall, the researchers found that there were actually two stages in how workers responded to the higher productivities levels. At first, fewer sick days were taken as workers felt pressure to come in despite feeling unwell. As the demand became more sustained however, the number of sick days increased overall for both men and women.
In light of this data, the researchers said employers should actively combat stress in the workplace – a trend which is already starting, they noted.
“Large US companies are offering trainings in cognitive behavioural skills, scented relaxation rooms, ‘living walls’ decorated with plants, and outdoor cafes with wildflowers, in order to help their employees combat stress at work,” the paper said.
“Our results suggest that such endeavour may be especially useful for the female workers whose employers are rapidly expanding in the global market.”
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While increased job effort can boost productivity and income, female workers are more likely to suffer an increased risk of illness and injury than men, one study has found.