Workers’ mental health vulnerable to bad management, study finds

By Melissa Coade

Friday June 25, 2021

Staff morale at Home Affairs, NIAA, and Social Services is among some of the lowest across all APS agencies (Adobe/jaymast)

A new Australian study has found that full-time workers are three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression if their workplace has poor management practices.

Dr Amy Zadow from the University of South Australia’s Psychological Safety Climate Observatory is the lead author of a 12-month study that has traced poor workplace mental health to poor management practices. 

The registered psychologist explained that the priorities and values of an organisation’s management, otherwise known as ‘psychosocial safety climate’ (PSC), can flow through to high job demands and low resources – with real and negative consequences for employees. In the case of a full time employee’s likelihood of being diagnosed with depression, the risk factor jumps by 300%.

“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,” Zadow said. 

Zadow’s team conducted a population-based cohort study to determine the risk of depression from bad management was greater than the risk that working long hours has on dying from cardiovascular disease or experiencing a stroke.

Worldwide, the global burden of depression affects an estimated 300 million people and more research is underway to try and understand how bad work environments are contributing to the problem. In economic terms, the high incidence of depression in the workplace manifests in absenteeism, poor work engagement and low productivity. 

The Australian study, which was published in the British Medical Journal on Thursday, also identified that working long hours was often a habit of valued workers who showed enthusiasm and commitment. Men in particular were more likely to become depressed if the workplace did not pay attention to the psychological health of its workers, the study found.

Workplace mental health expert Professor Maureen Dollard said the study showed the impact of high levels of burnout and workplace bullying on workers’ mental health. 

She added that another recent study of hers, published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology in June, showed that a low PSC was also ‘an important predictor’ for burnout and bullying across the workforce.

“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 behaviour for other members of the team,” Dollard said.

“But above all, bullying can be predicted from a company’s commitment to mental health, so it can be prevented.”

“Bullying in a work unit can not only negatively affect the victim, but also the perpetrator and team members who witness that behaviour. It is not uncommon for everyone in the same unit to experience burnout as a result,” she added. 

Dollard noted a Global Commission on the Future of Work that was established by the International Labor Organization in 2019 and that called for ‘a human-centred approach, putting people and the work they do at the centre of economic and social policy and business practice’.

“High levels of worker burnout are extremely costly to organisations and it’s clear that top-level organisational change is needed to address the issue,” she said. 


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