New research has shown that work-related stress is a cause of clinical depression and anxiety among young adults. In a study of almost nine hundred 32-year olds, fourteen percent of women and ten percent of men experiencing stress at work – and with no prior mental health problems – had a first episode of depression or anxiety at age 32.
The findings, published in the UK journal Psychological Medicine, come out of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study at the University of Otago, which has followed 1000 Dunedin-born people since their birth in 1972/73.
Standard psychiatric assessments were done on study members at regular intervals between the ages of 11 and 32. At age 32, study members were also asked about psychological and physical job demands, the level of control they had in decision-making, and social support structures at work.
It was found that women who reported high psychological job demands, such as working long hours, working under pressure or without clear direction, were 75 percent more likely to suffer from clinical depression or general anxiety disorder than women who reported the lowest level of psychological job demands.
Men with high psychological job demands were eighty percent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders than men with lower demands. Men with low levels of social support at work were also found to be at increased risk of depression, anxiety or both.
The researchers found that almost half of the cases of depression or generalised anxiety disorder newly diagnosed at age 32 were directly related to workplace stress and high job demands.
Paper lead author Dr Maria Melchior of the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London, says this is important, as it suggests that work stress can be a cause of psychiatric disorders in previously healthy individuals.
“In their thirties, most people are settling into careers, but it is also a time when people are at elevated risk for psychiatric disorders. Putting preventive efforts into reducing work stress at that age could bring big benefits,” says Dr Melchior.
Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study Director Professor Richie Poulton, who is another author of the paper, says those benefits include lower costs to the healthcare system and greater economic productivity.
“More people are being exposed to stress at work, and stress rates have increased in the last 10 years. We now know that work-related stress is associated with psychiatric health problems that increase health-care and societal costs and reduce work productivity. It’s a vicious cycle but one that can be broken with the right interventions,” says Professor Poulton.
Company-wide decreases in work demands could help reduce rates of depression and anxiety among the workforce. Other studies of workplace intervention show that this approach works, though company-wide changes may sometimes be hard to put in place. At an individual level, developing coping skills and relaxation techniques may be an important step towards reducing stress, and therefore depression and anxiety levels.
Melchior, M., Caspi, A., Milne, B. J., Danese, A., Poulton, R. & Moffitt, T. E. (2007). Work stress precipitates depression and anxiety in young working women and men. Psychological Medicine, 37, 1119-1129.