Working Conditions Play Huge Role in Employee Depression

sad man at work

Workplace depression is an informal term used to describe depression symptoms linked to social and interpersonal conditions in the workplace, as well as to other work-related factors. Current evidence indicates that this type of depression places a significant mental/emotional strain on the supervisors and employees of small and large businesses, and also places a significant financial strain on the U.S. economy. In a new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers from the University of Michigan assessed the overall impact of workplace-related factors on the average person’s depression risks. These researchers concluded that poor working conditions play a considerable role in triggering depressive illness.

Depression Basics

Depression is a disruptive change in personal outlook characterized by such things as unusually intense negative emotions, a decreased ability to think clearly, unusual sleeping or eating patterns, a restless or irritable disposition, a declining interest in the pursuit of pleasure and a variety of bodily aches and pains. In some cases, a depressive illness may produce effects that are severe enough to require hospitalization. Depression symptoms most likely to require hospital treatment include suicide-related thoughts and behaviors, and a break with everyday reality called psychosis. Depending on the nature, intensity and duration of an individual’s specific symptoms, he or she may be diagnosed with a depressive illness such as major depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, persistent depressive disorder (dysthymic disorder) or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.

Workplace Depression Basics

A number of work-related stress factors can contribute to the onset of depression, the University of Michigan Depression Center reports. Examples of these factors include the mental and physical strain of workplace responsibilities, lack of control over workplace decision-making, hostile interactions with supervisors or workplace peers, workplace bullying at the hands of supervisors or peers, a lack of job security, an inability to escape work-related responsibilities while at home, and conflicts between a job’s requirements and the need to take care of daily responsibilities unrelated to the workplace. In the U.S., more work hours are lost to depressive illness than to any other single cause. When absenteeism and diminished work performance are considered together, American businesses incur at least $44 billion dollars each year in depression-related costs. Generally speaking, women and older employees have the highest workplace depression risks.

New Findings

In the study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research examined the connection between workplace environment and depression risks in 1,900 adults from regions across the U.S. The study took place over 15 years and included four assessments for each participant. Unlike the authors of previous studies, who examined only the connection between depression risks and a limited number of workplace factors, the University of Michigan researchers looked at the workplace as a whole. To achieve this broader point of view, they assigned each work environment in the study a “negative working conditions score” based on its potential to produce stress in supervisors and employees.

At the study’s conclusion, the researchers found that supervisors and employees who work in environments with relatively high negative working conditions scores have a substantially larger number of depression symptoms than supervisors and employees who work in environments with relatively low negative conditions scores. Critically, they also found that in the workplaces with the highest negative scores, depression symptoms occur 33 percent more often than in relatively positive work environments.


Because of the way the study was structured, its authors can’t say for sure which specific workplace factors contribute the most to increasing depression risks for supervisors and employees. However, the researchers believe that their work clearly demonstrates that—taken as a whole—a stressful, “negative” workplace environment substantially increases the rate of depressive illness in the individuals who work in that environment. People who receive treatment for their workplace depression commonly return to work with substantially improved mental health, improve their overall level of productivity and reduce their rate of absenteeism. However, the University of Michigan Depression Center explains, businesses often limit access to the appropriate treatment resources, and thereby reduce the chances that their employees will have the time to get help for their depression symptoms.

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