On 8 September 2020, the French Ministry of Employment published the results of the psychosocial strand of its “SUMER” survey conducted in 2016-2017. Originally set up in 1994, the aim of this regular survey is to track the development of occupational risks and assess the effect of prevention policies. The 2016-2017 survey was based on a questionnaire enabling occupational physicians to interview more than 33,000 employees in a detailed manner. The results of this fourth survey reveal worrying levels of work-related stress. The public hospital sector takes pole position in the list of high-risk jobs, with 35% of workers suffering from work-related stress.

Looking beyond this academic concept, we need to understand that the hospital environment is characterised by high workloads and by staff having little chance to take their own decisions – two psychosocial risk factors. This distinction explains why hospital managers are the least exposed (16%), with their work intensity compensated by the room to manoeuvre they have in facing up to these demands. When workers find themselves restricted by strict procedures or tight deadlines, workloads become a source of stress, as would seem to be the case among front-line hospital staff.

A more detailed analysis reveals that the rate of exposure among women working in this sector is close to 40%, against 29% among men – a tendency replicated in the private sector and in the civil service.

The SUMER survey also looks at six further risk factors, with the public hospital sector again coming off badly. Hospital staff top the tables in reporting hostile and contemptuous behaviour, a lack of recognition, and verbal, physical or sexual aggression. With the exception of the last factor, this time it is men who are most exposed.

These risk factors are by no means trivial. Generating stress, they have major effects on workers’ health. Numerous epidemiological studies have shown that work-related stress can lead to cardiovascular problems, musculoskeletal disorders and depression. As highlighted by the French nursing union, SNPI, last July, “You must be crazy to want to work in a hospital, underpaid, understaffed and with awful working conditions in some places”. Indeed, according to the SNPI, 30% of young nurses leave the profession within five years of graduating.

These results show that the Covid-19 health crisis is unwinding in an unfavourable hospital context likely to exacerbate existing problems.

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