Toxic workplaces increase risk of depression by 300%

June 27, 2021

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Toxic workplaces increase risk of depression by 300%

A year-long Australian population study has found that full time workers employed by organizations that fail to prioritize their employees’ mental health have a threefold increased risk of being diagnosed with depression.

And while working long hours is a risk factor for dying from cardiovascular disease or having a stroke, poor management practices pose a greater risk for depression, the researchers found. The study was published in the British Medical Journal.

Psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is the term used to describe management practices and communication and participation systems that protect workers’ mental health and safety. The lead author said that poor workplace mental health can be traced back to poor management practices, priorities and values, which then flows through to high job demands and low resources.

What the researchers say: “Evidence shows that companies who fail to reward or acknowledge their employees for hard work, impose unreasonable demands on workers, and do not give them autonomy, are placing their staff at a much greater risk of depression,” she said.

The study found that while enthusiastic and committed workers are valued, working long hours can lead to depression. Men are also more likely to become depressed if their workplace pays scant attention to their psychological health.

Due to the global burden of depression, which shows no sign of abating despite available treatments, more attention is now being paid to poorly functioning work environments which could contribute to the problem. High levels of burnout and workplace bullying are also linked to organizations’ failure to support workers’ mental health.

“Lack of consultation with employees and unions over workplace health and safety issues, and little support for stress prevention, is linked to low PSC in companies,” the researchers said. “We also found that bullying in a work unit can not only negatively affect the victim, but also the perpetrator and team members who witness that behavior. It is not uncommon for everyone in the same unit to experience burnout as a result.

“In this study we investigated bullying in a group context and why it occurs. Sometimes stress is a trigger for bullying and in the worst cases it can set an ‘acceptable’ level of behavior for other members of the team. But above all bullying can be predicted from a company’s commitment to mental health, so it can be prevented,” they added.

The global costs of workplace bullying, and worker burnout are significant, manifested in absenteeism, poor work engagement, stress leave and low productivity.

The extent of the problem was recognized in 2019 with the International Labor Organization (ILO) implementing a Global Commission on the Future of Work and calling for “a human-centered approach, putting people and the work they do at the center of economic and social policy and business practice”.

“The practical implications of this research are far reaching. High levels of worker burnout are extremely costly to organizations and it’s clear that top-level organizational change is needed to address the issue,” The lead author concluded.

So, what? The more stress, the more bullying—whether that is cyber bullying or in person bullying. The more bullying, the more depression.

But persistent use of certain management and leadership styles—particularly what is called “transactional leadership” (do as I say or else) can also be a cause of depression and stress—as previous articles in TR have highlighted. The same is true of setting “stretch goals,” or demanding constantly increasing revenue from partners in professional service firms.

Bullying is also rife in academia, the civil service and elsewhere. The truth is that we do not organize our businesses—or our society—in ways which are suitable for humans. Hunter-gatherers do not suffer from endogenous (long-lasting) depression.

Organizations of all kinds need to learn that work is not for profit, for goals, or for output. It’s for relationships, for support, for feeling valued, for status, for purpose. If an organization organizes its business to take these elemental human needs on board it will be more profitable and productive. For more on bullying click here.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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