Social inequalities in health are widely examined. But the reasons behind this phenomenon still remain unclear in parts. It is undisputed that the work environment plays a crucial role in this regard. However, the contribution of psychosocial factors at work is unclear and inconsistent, and most studies are limited with regard to work factors and health outcomes. This study, therefore, aimed to explore the role and contribution of various physical and psychosocial working conditions to explaining social inequalities in different self-reported health outcomes.
Data from a postal survey among the workforces of four medium-sized and large companies from diverse industries of the secondary sector in Switzerland were used and analysed. The study sample covered 1,846 employees aged 20 and 64 and included significant proportions of unskilled manual workers and highly qualified non-manual workers. Cross tabulations and logistic regression analyses were performed to study multiple associations between social status, work factors and health outcomes. Combinations of educational level and occupational position wee used as a measure of social status or class.
Clear social gradients were observed for almost all adverse working conditions and poor health outcomes studied, but in different directions. While physical workloads and other typical blue-collar job characteristics not suprisingly, were found to be much more common among the lower classes, most psychosocial work demands and job resources were more prevalent in the higher classes. Furthermore, workers in lower classes, i.e. with lower educational and occupational status, were more likely to report poor self-rated health, limited physical functioning and long sickness absence, but at the same time were less likely to experience increased stress feelings and burnout symptoms showing a reversed health gradient. Finally, blue-collar job characteristics contributed substantially to the social gradient found in general and physical health outcomes. In contrast, white-collar job characteristics made no contribution to explaining the gradient in these health outcomes, but instead largely explained the reversed social gradient observed for the mental health outcomes.
The findings suggest a more differentiated pattern of the commonly found social gradient in health and the differential role of work in this respect.