Work environnement – a cause of mental health disease?

Many studies have been done to show the relationship between the work environment and mental health. Even if some of these studies have been criticized, decades of research clearly show: Working conditions clearly influence the mental health of an individual – in both directions.

Is mental health disease linked to poor work environment? For decades now, numerous surveys and models has found a clear connection. Some are even well on their way to establish a causal link. This is the case of Karasek’s model, the most famous stress-model. In 1979, Robert Karasek, a professor in psychology designed a model to explain and evaluate psychosocial risks at work. His model, the job-demand model which was updated to include support together with Töres Theorell a few years later, covers three different dimensions that can explain the relationship between occupational diseases and a stressful working environment:

  • Psychological demands : Focused on the psychological stressors at work
  • Low decision latitude : It includes, on the one hand, decision-making autonomy and, on the other hand, the possibility of using and developing one’s skills and qualifications.

Social support : This dimension includes the social-emotional and instrumental aspects from the hierarchy but also from colleagues.

Karasek's model

Explanation of Karasek’s and Theorell’s model

Different job models

According to Karasek’s « job-demands-resources model », jobs can be classified into four different types and each of those is linked to mental health. The first one, « high-strain job », presents the highest risk. In these types of work, the psychological demand is high while at the same time the decision latitude is low. Workers also lack support which in this case a type of resources that helps to deal with demand. Work like this leads to fatigue, anxiety, depression and physical illness.

In the second dimension, « active jobs », workers have sufficient control and freedom over their activities and can develop their skills. These kind of workers are associated with average psychological strain and active leisure time.

Thirdly, the « low-strain-job »dimension describes a working situation with few psychological demands and a high level of control. Workers in this job model are predicted to have lower than average levels of psychological strain.

Finally, the « passive job » dimension, characterized by low demands and low control is linked to average levels of psychological strain and health risks with lack of motivation and possibly involve atrophying of skills and abilities.

Numerous international researches support the Karasek model’s predictive validity for cardiovascular diseases, psychiatric illnesses, as well as global health indices like perceived health, quality of life, and health-related absenteeism.

All equal?

Even if a causal relationship is difficult to show in this case, studies tend to point to the fact thatwomen and men are not equal when it comes to working conditions and the risks of developing mental health illness. According to the Swedish Work Environment Authority, « women are more likely to get sick due to their work, while men are more often affected by accidents requiring sick leave, and by death at work ».

It is important to state that it is clear that these differences are due to unequal working conditions – i.e. men and women who work under the same working conditions report being sick at the same rate. The most common differences when it comes to working conditions are:

  • In the organizational component, « statistics indicate that temporary employment is slightly more common among women. It is also more common for women to work shifts. However, a slightly higher percentage of men than women are working long hours. Overall, there are no major differences between women and men as regards experiences of organizational change, frequency of distance work or leadership perceptions ».
  • In job demands: « Several different types of psychosocial job demands are more common among women than men. In particular, this applies to job strain, psychological demands, emotional demands, unclear goals and general work stress. Such job demands are more common in occupations within education, health care and social services that mostly employ women ».
  • Regarding resources: « Low control is somewhat more prevalent among women than among men, whereas low social support is somewhat more common among men ».

Work and happiness

It stands clear that a poor work environment is linked to mental health issues. What if work environment was also linked to happiness? And what if, this link was much stronger? This is the comments of Dr. Peter Smith, the lead researcher of the Institute for Work & Health study. According to him, better workplace conditions are linked not only with lower risks of mental illnesses, but also with an increased likelihood of workers having flourishing mental health.

Efforts from companies to tackle mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, may have real impact in more than one way. This is great news for all employers – Improving working conditions will reduce mental health issues but they can also increase their employees’ life satisfaction, sense of purpose and connection to the community.