Researchers have found that work is not always conducive to good mental health.
Dr. Maria Melchior of the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, UK and colleagues suggest that reducing work stress levels could prevent the occurrence of clinically significant depression and anxiety.
In the journal Psychological Medicine, they report on their study of the influence of work stress on young working adults. They recruited 972 individuals taking part in the ongoing “Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study,” based in New Zealand. The participants were all born in 1972-1973 and assessed most recently in 2004-2005, at age 32.
Though a series of interviews, the researchers assessed levels of work stress, defined as psychological job demands (such as excessive workload or extreme time pressures), decision-making power, social support at work, and physical work demands. Diagnosis of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder were made using standard criteria.
Analysis suggested that those participants with high psychological job demands were twice as likely to fit the criteria for depression and anxiety. The researchers calculated that the risk was 90 percent higher for women and 100 percent higher for men, compared with individuals with low psychological job demands. This pattern persisted when other relevant factors were ruled out, including socioeconomic background, a tendency to report negatively, and history of earlier psychiatric disorder. None of the other potentially stress-inducing elements (low decision-making power, lack of social support in the company, and high physical demands) seemed to have an impact on anxiety or depression. The researchers also took into account the category of work, so as not to confuse the effects of high stress with being at a low level on the hierarchy.
Overall, greater psychological pressure was found to be extremely harmful for both men and women. But despite modern working practices such as frequent overtime and tight deadlines potentially making a proportion of workers ill, the trends are unlikely to reverse in the near future.
Using a different group of participants, Dr. Melchior found that work stress combined with family demands raises the risk of mental health problems, especially depression.
Her team studied the link in a group of 8,869 men and 2,671 women in France, covering nine years. Their levels of work stress and family demands were measured by questionnaire and compared with rates of sickness absence.
Those with two or more work stress factors and four or more dependents were defined as having high demands. Other factors including age, marital status, social support and alcohol consumption were taken into account.
Among the subgroup with high demands, rates of sickness absence were “significantly higher” than for participants with lower demands (0-1 work stress factors and 1-3 dependents). Risk was 1.82 times higher for men, and a huge 5.04 times higher for women. The top cause of sickness absence was depression, report the researchers. For women, the risk of depression was increased by up to 8.57 times, depending on the type of statistical analysis.
Further findings from a different group suggest that adverse changes in the “psychosocial” work environment are linked to increased sickness absence. Dr. Jenny Head of University College London, UK and her team followed 3,817 British civil servants for about ten years, measuring job control, job demands, and work social support. A reduction in social support or job control, or an increase in demands each significantly increased the risk of sickness absence lasting more than a week.
Melchior M. et al. Work stress precipitates depression and anxiety in young, working women and men. Psychological Medicine, Vol. 37, August 2007, pp. 1119-29.
Melchior M. et al. The mental health effects of multiple work and family demands: A prospective study of psychiatric sickness absence in the French GAZEL study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, Vol. 42, July 2007, pp. 573-82.
Head J. et al. Influence of change in psychosocial work characteristics on sickness absence: The Whitehall II Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Vol. 60, January 2006, pp. 55-61.