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Young workers at greater risk of psychological ill health

Young workers at greater risk of psychological ill health

| Text: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir, photo: Arnþór Birkisson

Many young workers in the Nordic countries live dangerously in the workplace, according to a new Nordic report. The risk for physical injury as well as psychological ill health is considerably higher among young workers compared to older ones.

For Icelandic Kristján Rúnar Egilsson it started with a physical workplace accident, which turned into a depression and psychological ill health. When he turned 22 his arm was caught in a door at work and he needed to have an operation. The whole process was supposed to take around six months. But the accident threw Kristján into a crisis. He lost all routines and was diagnosed with depression and severe anxiety. It has taken him six years to get back on his feet.

A new study called ‘Young workers and sustainable work life’, published by the Nordic Council of Ministers, shows that young workers in the Nordic region are struggling with similar work-related challenges. People between 15 and 34 are at greater risk of suffering from depression compared to older workers. Nearly half (40 percent) have an increased risk of depression and more than two thirds (70 percent) have a greater risk of work-related headaches. For young people the risk of developing a skin condition as a result of the working environment is three times higher than for older workers. 

The report is based on statistics and literature and shows that young workers are up to 70 percent more likely to perform heavy physical work, and they are nearly twice as likely to have a workplace accident compared to their older colleagues. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries are the sectors which carry the greatest risk for workplace accidents in the Nordic region.

There are also differences between the sexes. Young men are more likely to suffer a workplace accident than women. The reason is that men more than women often have dangerous working tasks.

Accident made him loose his footing

Icelandic Kristján Rúnar Egilsson has had his share of work-related difficulties. Several things which have happened since his 2010 workplace accident have made him loose his footing and have complicated his rehabilitation. But he has always kept his focus – to continue being active in the labour market and being self sufficient.

“The accident stopped me in many different ways,” says Kristján who will finish his vocational training to be a graphical printer this spring. 

He thinks back to the time of the accident when his life started feeling unsafe. Kristján had been working for several years at the swimming baths in his home town of Kópavogur in Iceland when his right hand was caught in a door. Kristján went on sick leave right away on doctor’s orders. But suddenly, a few months later, he was fired from his job with no warning.

“The swimming baths’ leadership illegally fired me during my sick leave,” Kristján claims.

“When I rang the boss he told me the reason was that I had not come in to work. I went straight to the union with this and won,” he says.

Did not believe him

Kristján says that young people meet more prejudice than others in Iceland’s labour market, and he is of the impression that management did not believe him when he told them that he couldn’t work. According to him there was no trust between management and employees, which he believes was because of the basic belief in Iceland that if you are young, you are also healthy and should be able to work.

“Some think it is laziness when you don’t come in to work despite the fact that you are in plaster and have a doctor’s note,” he says.

Kristján had an operation, was given work rehabilitation and help with his depression. His dream was to train to be a photographer, so he moved to Denmark to study. But he was in pain and suffered from a severe depression. It dawned on him that he would never be a photographer. His hand could not perform all the little movements which a photographer must make.

No sickness allowance

Back in Iceland Kristján was told he did not qualify for sickness allowance because he had spent just over a year in Denmark. He would not regain that right for another three years. He almost lost his footing again. Kristján suffered pain and severe depression. And he had no income. Things did not look bright when Kristján once again got work rehabilitation and help from a psychologist. After a while he decided to train as a graphic printer, and this spring he is sitting his exams and has overcome the worst difficulties in his life. He still suffers from pain, but is in control of his depression and now works at a printing press in Reykjavik.

But Kristján is not the only young person with work-related difficulties in the Nordic region. Youth employment levels in Iceland are certainly better than in many other Nordic countries – 70 percent compared to for instance Sweden’s 42 percent – yet young adults often have part time jobs and unusual working hours which can complicate their lives. 

Literature also shows that issues like unemployment, self-rated ill health, dropping out from studying and belonging to an ethnic minority also contribute to low labour market participation.

The new Nordic report also shows there is a lack of knowledge about which role or opportunities business leaders have to strengthen and maintain a healthy working environment for young workers.

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Kristján Rúnar Egilsson
trapped his right hand during a workplace accident in 2010. Six year later he feels better.

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