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Differential exposure and differential vulnerability as counteracting forces linking the psychosocial work environment to socioeconomic health differences
  1. C Vanroelen1,2,
  2. K Levecque3,
  3. F Louckx1
  1. 1Department of Medical Sociology, Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, Belgium
  2. 2Employment Conditions Network (EMCONET), Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain
  3. 3Research Foundation Flanders & Department of Sociology, University of Ghent, Ghent, Belgium
  1. Correspondence to Christophe Vanroelen, Department of Medical Sociology, Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, Laarbeeklaan 103, 1090 Brussels, Belgium; cvroelen{at}


Background In this article, the link between (1) psychosocial working conditions (job demands, job autonomy, task variation, social support), (2) self-reported health (persistent fatigue, musculoskeletal complaints, emotional well-being) and (3) socioeconomic position (skill levels, occupational status) is explored. The two theoretical pathways linking the psychosocial work environment to socioeconomic differences in health are explored: differential exposure and differential vulnerability. Previously, the focus has often been on social inequalities in exposure to the stressors. The pathway of differential vulnerability in different socioeconomic positions is often neglected.

Methods In a representative cross-sectional sample of 11 099 Flemish (Belgian) wage earners, 16–65 years of age (47.5% women), logit modelling is applied.

Results Higher exposure to psychosocial occupational stressors is associated with a higher prevalence of adverse health outcomes. Lower skill levels and subordinate occupational positions show a higher prevalence of musculoskeletal complaints, but not of persistent fatigue or emotional well-being. High demands, job strain and iso-strain are more common in higher-skilled, supervisory and managerial positions, but have the strongest health-damaging effects in lower socioeconomic positions. Low control is more prevalent in lower-skilled and subordinate positions, while having stronger adverse health effects in higher socioeconomic positions—the same holds for social support, although it has no clear socioeconomic distribution.

Conclusion Differential exposure and differential vulnerability constitute two counteracting forces in constituting the association between the psychosocial work environment and socioeconomic differences in self-reported health complaints among wage earners.

  • Social class
  • psychosocial factors
  • effect modifiers
  • employees
  • health status me
  • employed CG

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  • Funding Research Council of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.