Study links high pressure jobs to mental problems

High-pressure jobs are a major cause of psychiatric problems in workers in their early 30s, a groundbreaking study into work stress in New Zealand has shown.

One in seven women and one in 10 men out of nearly 900 people with no previous mental health difficulties reported being stressed at work and suffering clinical depression or anxiety by the age of 32.

Long hours, demanding supervisors, high workloads and lack of clear direction are responsible for half of the cases of clinical depression and anxiety, according to research based on people born in Dunedin in the early 1970s and who have been studied since they were toddlers.

One of the researchers, Otago University professor Richie Poulton, said it was the first time an academically rigorous analysis had taken place of the impact of job stress on mental health.

"More people are being exposed to stress at work, and stress rates have increased in the last 10 years," he said.

"This study can help explain that. We saw that of many people who had never had mental health issues – depression or anxiety – by the age of 32, half can be attributed to workplace stress."

Poulton said the study had implications for employers, but the goal of the research was to find out where preventive work was needed.

"If you want to minimise depression and anxiety, you'd really focus your attention on the workplace as a point of leverage," he said.

The research, published in a British academic journal, Psychological Medicine, is expected to help workers who complain of workplace stress and underscores the responsibility of employers to take proper care of their staff.

Among the findings of the study are:

Men and women in high-pressure jobs are 80 per cent and 75 per cent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders than those in low-pressure jobs.

Fourteen per cent of women and 10 per cent of men with no previous psychiatric history had experienced clinical depression or anxiety by the age of 32 if in high-pressure jobs.

Men reported their jobs were more psychologically and physically demanding than women and had lower social support.

Poulter said a strength of the study was that the subjects had undergone regular psychiatric testing since they were children, so researchers were able to rule out other possible factors, such as predisposition towards depression and socio-economic factors.

The degree of control in the workplace and the physical environment were also found to be of little relevance to the risk of depression and anxiety.

Canterbury University senior law lecturer John Hughes said it was likely the research would be cited in New Zealand courts in prosecutions or damages claims based on workplace stress.

"The cases that have so far been successful in New Zealand, whether prosecutions or actions for damages, have been extreme examples where effectively either the employer has ignored warning signs or ignored direct requests for assistance," Hughes said.

He said employers had been on notice about the need to protect staff from excessive stress since workplace safety legislation in the early 1990s.

Hughes said workers also had to front up about stress.

"What happens quite frequently is employees don't say they're suffering from stress because they don't want to be seen as not coping," he said.

Christchurch psychotherapist Teresa Gourley said about 30 per cent of the people she counsels suffer from workplace stress but she believed it was not as simple as blaming pressure at work.

"I was at Lincoln University for 14 years and my experience was always that if people had stress at home or difficulty in their relationships, that inevitably flowed into their workplace. And I think that people are stressed at work, that flows on to their family.

The Press