How job strain may impair mental health

Mental health problems are more common than we might think.

The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) estimate that 16.2 million people in the United States have experienced major depression at least once in the past year.

Depression is considered the leading cause of workplace absenteeism in the U.S., as well as the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Anxiety is another common mental health problem. Over 19 percent of the entire U.S. population is estimated to have had an anxiety disorder in the past year.

Some studies have suggested that job strain is the leading cause of stress in the U.S., but could the intensity of a high-pressured work environment lead to common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression?

A new study, published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, asks precisely this. The research — led by associate professor Samuel Harvey, from the Black Dog Institute in Sydney, Australia — examines the impact of job strain, defined as a combination of low job control and high job demands, on mental health.

High job strain puts mental health at risk

Harvey and colleagues analyzed data available on 6,870 people enrolled in the United Kingdom National Child Development Study, a large cohort study.

The researchers focused on whether people who experienced a high level of job strain at the age of 45 would go on to develop mental health issues by age 50.

To determine job strain, the participants answered questions about their decision-making abilities at work and their ability to use their skills at their discretion, as well as questions about the workload, work pace, and other demands of the job.

Harvey and his colleagues accounted for potential factors outside of the workplace that might have influenced the results, such as marital separation, financial stress, a death in the family, or health issues.

The participants’ IQs, education, and history of mental health issues were also considered. At age 50, the participants’ mental health was assessed using the Malaise Inventory questionnaire.

Overall, by the age of 50, the study participants who had experienced higher job strain were up to 14 percent more likely to develop a common form of mental illness.

“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,” explains Harvey.

Workers need to feel in control

Harvey further weighs in on the study, saying, “These findings serve as a wakeup call for the role workplace initiatives should play in our efforts to curb the rising costs of mental disorders.”

“It’s important to remember that for most people, being in work is a good thing for their mental health,” he goes on to say.

“But,” Harvey continues, “this research provides strong evidence that organizations can improve employee well-being by modifying their workplaces to make them more mentally healthy.”

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

Our research attempted to account for the possible reasons an individual’s work conditions could impact their mental health — and this modeling is the most complete ever published.”

Samuel Harvey

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