Repetitive strain injury among South African employees: the relationship with burnout and work engagement

27 June 2014

The objective of this study was to analyse the incidence of symptoms probably related to Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and to compare three groups of South African employees: employees highly engaged and not burned out (high vitality and dedication, low exhaustion and cynicism); employees who are engaged, but also exhausted (high vitality and dedication, high exhaustion); and burned out employees (high exhaustion and cynicism, low vitality and dedication – i.e. not engaged). A cross-sectional field survey approach was used and a convenient sample was utilised (N = 15,663). Of the employees who indicated that they experienced RSI-related symptoms sometimes and frequently, 47% (7427) indicated experiencing neck, shoulder and/or upper back pain (28.9% experienced it sometimes; 18.5% experienced it frequently), followed by 42% (6595) reporting eyestrain (27.5% experienced it sometimes; 14.7% experienced it frequently), and 24% (3838) experiencing muscle stiffness (17.5% experienced it sometimes; 7.00% experienced it frequently). From the total sample, sub-samples were created to represent the three groups (n = 4411). Significant differences existed between highly engaged employees (n = 1645), engaged employees with exhaustion (n = 1196), and burned out employees (n = 1570) with regard to eyestrain, F(2,2739.50) = 656.60, p < 0.001; muscle stiffness, F(2,2618.76) = 477.05, p < 0.001; and neck, shoulder and/or upper back discomfort F(2,2741.85) = 795.48, p < 0.001. Burned out employees and engaged employees with exhaustion experienced significantly higher RSI-related symptoms compared to the highly engaged group. Relevance to industry: RSI is the most common form of work-related ill health and has significant implications for organisations in terms of lost productivity, drops in work quality and costly compensation claims. Not much research is available within South Africa on the incidence of RSI and how RSI-related symptoms (such as neck, shoulder and/or upper back pain, eyestrain and muscle stiffness) may differ between employees with different levels of burnout and work engagement. This research can serve to raise awareness, provide evidence on the incidence of RSI-related symptoms as well as allow for adjustments in workplace behaviour related to burnout and work engagement that can reduce the risk of RSI risk symptoms.