Danish research project highlights wellbeing

8th of March 2012
Danish research project highlights wellbeing

Reporting from Denmark, Petra Sjouwerman examines the results of a research project amongst cleaners.

Cleaning toilets, mopping floors and washing windows is physically hard work. Compared to other working groups, cleaners have a higher risk for burn-out on the job and for leaving the labour market earlier. Research in Denmark, however, has now shown that physical and behavioural training makes cleaners stronger. It reduces the risk of physical and mental overload.

Researchers from the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment (NFA) in Copenhagen examined 363 cleaners from nine different public workplaces.

At the start researchers examined the cleaners' health and physical abilities. Results showed that many had higher blood pressure, were more obese and had poorer work ability than working Danes generally. A considerable number of them had problems with their neck, shoulders and back.

The participants were allocated different groups. One group did 20-minutes physical training sessions three times a week, supervised by a professional trainer.

The second group did cognitive behavioural training on perceiving and handling pain. Supervised by a psychologist, they formed discussions groups and did psychological exercises two hours every other week.

The purpose of the cognitive training was to minimise fear of movement, also called kinesiophobia. Fear of movement is rather frequent among people with chronic back pain or other musculoskeletal pains. Phobic responses to pain and unhealthy pain maintaining habits are major contributors to pain related disability and reporting ill.

All training took place during working hours, which might seem strange, but is not uncommon in Denmark. For instance postal workers in distribution centres who execute repetitive tasks in a fixed body position, do physical exercises together on the shop floor, several times a day.

The research project showed that after three months of physical training the employees' muscle strength and their coordination skills had improved by about 20 per cent. Cognitive training reduced cleaners' fear of movement by about 16 per cent compared to the other groups. The Danish researchers concluded this kind of training increases physical and mental abilities, and potentially helps to avoid burn-out on the job.

“Hard physical work becomes easier when you are stronger,” declared the spokesperson for 3F, the trades union that among others represents cleaners in Denmark. “But training is not a magic potion,” she warned. “Cleaners must also have other tasks, thus more variation and alternation in their jobs.”

The project's main researcher, Marie Birk Jørgensen, agreed that training always should be a supplement to other approaches. “Often it would be prudent to make both ergonomic and organisational changes simultaneously with the introduction of training,” she stated to the Danish press.

This research project is part of a larger scientific project by both Danish and Swedish researchers. The purpose of this three-year research programme is twofold. The Scandinavians want to find out why specific job groups like cleaners often burn out on the job. The second question is: what can employers do to prevent this?

As the researchers are almost finished, we can soon expect more interesting results.


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