Job strain linked to onset of mental illness

New research suggests those under additional pressure are at a greater risk of depression or anxiety

Job strain linked to onset of mental illness

Employers that actively seek to reduce job strain could also help curtail new cases of mental illness, according to the results of one recent study.

Research led by the Black Dog Institute found that workplaces that reduce job strain could prevent up to 14 per cent of new cases of common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Published today in The Lancet Psychiatry, the results confirm that high job strain is associated with an increased risk of developing a mental illness, specifically among middle-aged workers.

According to the study, job strain is the term used to describe the combination of high work pace, intensity and conflicting demands, coupled with low control or decision-making capacity.

The study used detailed data collected over 50 years to examine the various ways in which particular work conditions may impact an employee’s mental health.

“These findings serve as a wake-up call for the role workplace initiatives should play in our efforts to curb the rising costs of mental disorders,” said lead author and associate professor Samuel Harvey from the Black Dog Institute.

“It’s important to remember that for most people, being in work is a good thing for their mental health,” he continued. “But this research provides strong evidence that organisations can improve employee wellbeing by modifying their workplaces to make them more mentally healthy.”

For the report, the international research team analysed health data from the UK National Child Development Study – which has 6,870 participants – to find out whether people experiencing job strain at age 45 were at an increased risk of developing mental illness by age 50.

To determine levels of job strain, participants completed questionnaires at age 45 testing for factors including decision authority (the ability to make decisions about work), skill discretion (the opportunity to use skills during work) and questions about job pace, intensity and conflicting demands.

The researchers also accounted for non-workplace factors including divorce, financial problems, housing instability, and other stressful life events like death or illness.

The models developed in this study controlled for individual workers’ temperament and personality, their IQ, level of education, prior mental health problems and a range of other factors from across their early lives.

At age 50, participants completed the Malaise Inventory questionnaire, a psychological scale used in health surveys to indicate symptoms of common mental illness.

The final modelling suggests that those experiencing higher job demands, lower job control and higher job strain were at greater odds of developing mental illness by age 50, regardless of sex or occupational class.

“Our research attempted to account for the possible reasons an individual’s work conditions could impact their mental health – and this modelling is the most complete ever published,” said Harvey.

“The results indicate that if we were able to eliminate job strain situations in the workplace, up to 14 percent of cases of common mental illness could be avoided,” he added.

“Workplaces can adopt a range of measures to reduce job strain, and finding ways to increase workers’ perceived control of their work is often a good practical first step. This can be achieved through initiatives that involve workers in as many decisions as possible.”

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