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Atypical Work and Depression

Common sense has it that a crummy job can lead to poor mental health. Insecure and low-quality jobs are least likely to offer accommodations and benefits, have more drawbacks, and are linked with more depression and anxiety. Mental health problems are also worsened by psychologically unhealthy workplace conditions, atypical (impermanent, unpredictable) employment, and underemployment (part-time or very low pay).

Depression and anxiety disorders led the list of illnesses reported by atypical workers, reports a thorough review in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Workers in Australia, Canada, the UK and USA differed in which type of illnesses had more impact on either absenteeism or presenteeism, but were all affected by growing workplace disability.

Atypical casual workers (casual workers get work when the employers has schedule openings, not when they’d prefer to work, and have a hard time planning their life and bill payments around a work schedule that changes one week to the next) reported depression and anxiety more often than those with permanent jobs, or fixed term contracts.

Quality of work matters. In four studies comprising over 30,000 employees, researchers identified key areas. High-demand (workload, time pressure, and role conflict)/low-autonomy factors, poor organizational justice (is the work and management fair?), and/or effort-reward imbalances (“effort includes responsibility, workload, and time pressures, whereas reward includes money, esteem, and career opportunities such as promotion and job security”) increased the risk of mental illness by 24% to 63%. “…a suboptimal job may contribute to depression (the social causation hypothesis).” In another study, professionals and craftspeople were less depressed and anxiety-prone than labourers, clerks and sales workers.

In the editorial Half a Loaf: Here we have summarized the findings of these studies and discussed their limitations and implications and conclude that treatment for mood disorders might hold promise for improving work performance, but more than treatment is required. These two studies cast important light on the prevalence of mood disorders among workers and the associated disruption of work performance. Many days of work productivity are lost, but time and treatment seem to reduce these losses. Unfortunately, symptom remission associated with natural recovery and treatment is not sufficient to return depressed workers to full productivity. If full recovery and productive work are the objective, additional workplace interventions and specific rehabilitation efforts must be added to effective treatment for mood disorders.

In psychologically unhealthy work environments that contributed to someone’s mental decline, if they received treatment and then returned to an unchanged toxic work environment it set a relapse. More workplace data here:

And nearly a quarter of Canadians work paid or unpaid overtime, according to Statistics Canada—an average of 8.5 extra hours per week. According to Ipsos Canada, an average of two vacation days per employee go unused—and 10% don’t take any vacation days at all.

As a result, disability claims for stress and depression are skyrocketing. According to Watson Wyatt, a firm that audits disability claims, psychological conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression are the leading causes of both short term and long term disability costs. A report from the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addictions and Mental Health notes that up to 12% of a typical company’s payroll is lost to disability.

Some solutions proposed:

…encouraging employee control over timing of work tasks, redesigning jobs to reduce time pressures, and clarifying expected duties and outcomes. Regarding the effort–reward model, restoring a balance between efforts and rewards may have positive mental health consequences. Possible interventions are additional reward schemes, supervisor training in transmitting praise for good work, clear pathways to promotion, and access to training for career development.

Common Mental Disorders in the Workforce: Recent Findings From Descriptive and Social Epidemiology, Sanderson and Andrews, 2006, Can J Psychiatry
The impact of psychiatric disorders on work loss days, Kessler and Frank, 1997, Psychological Medicine
Half a loaf:, Goldman and Drake, 2006, Am J Psychiatry
Mental Disorders and Addictions in the Workplace, 2006, Here to Help fact sheet

Atypical Work and Depression

Sandra Kiume

Sandra Kiume is a mental health advocate. Along with contributing to World of Psychology, she blogs at Channel N about brain and behaviour videos, and is the founder of @unsuicide and Online Suicide Help. She lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

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APA Reference
Kiume, S. (2018). Atypical Work and Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 12 Jul 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.