Home » Depression: When professional stress becomes a danger to the psyche – and when it doesn’t

Depression: When professional stress becomes a danger to the psyche – and when it doesn’t

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Depression: When professional stress becomes a danger to the psyche – and when it doesn’t

In Germany it is difficult to ignore the fact that working life can be dangerous. The Occupational Safety and Health Act already ensures this. In this country, bosses have a duty to instruct their employees on safety and health protection. This doesn’t just apply to roofers, chemical laboratory technicians or forklift drivers.

Office workers are also regularly instructed not to stretch charging cables across the floor and to use the stairs instead of the elevators when there is a fire alarm. Almost all imaginable scenarios in which you could be physically injured are covered – right up to and including the coffee machine short-circuiting. The only thing that is missing is the explanation of what risks lurk in the job for the psyche.

There would be a great need. The AOK scientific institute (WIdO) recently presented the “Absence Report 2023”. According to this, 10.3 percent of all absences among AOK-insured employees last year were psychologically related; Since 2012, days missed due to mental illness have increased by 48 percent. These numbers say nothing about how many of those affected fell ill due to work-related reasons.

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But the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) cautiously estimates that around a third of the cases in which employees suffer from depressive symptoms in this country could have been caused by their job. In a WIdO survey, the majority of participants also reported “work-related psychological complaints”, especially exhaustion and anger, but also listlessness and “like being burnt out”. Obviously, professional life takes a toll on the soul. But why is this and what can be done about it?

Birgit Greiner and Reiner Rugulies recently gave some possible answers to this. The epidemiologist from the Irish University College Cork and the epidemiologist from the National Research Center for the Working Environment in Copenhagen visited Berlin in mid-October. There they presented the results of a comprehensive analysis at the World Health Summit, which was published in the journal The Lancet. A central finding is that certain professional conditions are actually associated with an increased risk of developing depression.

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These stressors can lead to depression

In the study, a team led by Greiner and Rugulies focused on seven meta-analyses from 2017 to 2021, which included dozens of studies on occupational stress and mental illnesses – with a total of hundreds of thousands of employees. Almost all of them came from high-income countries and had shown no symptoms of illness at the start of the study, but over time some had developed a clinically diagnosed mental disorder.

The team then extracted 17 unfavorable working conditions from the meta-analyses and calculated their statistical connection with the occurrence of mental disorders. In fact, 13 stressors were associated with an increased risk of developing depression; This diagnosis was by far the most frequently examined in the studies.

Bullying therefore has the greatest influence. The researchers found further connections for a lack of justice, job insecurity, great emotional stress, a lack of support, too little recognition and “job strain”. This means that employees have to meet high standards, but at the same time have little control or room for maneuver. With the exception of bullying, the effects are statistically moderate to weak. Nevertheless, Greiner and Rugulies consider them to be significant.

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Dieter Zapf, industrial psychologist at the Goethe University Frankfurt/Main, sees it the same way. The victims of bullying are usually very badly off, but it is estimated that this only affects three to ten percent of working people. “The vast majority experience significantly less serious problems at work, such as time pressure or excessive workloads, but these also have – albeit less – negative effects on their health,” he says.

But why do certain working conditions actually increase the risk of becoming depressed? After all, not all stress factors affect the psyche, as Zapf describes using the example of workload. “There are professionals who always have an excessive amount of work to do and deadlines to meet,” he says. This is bad, but it can have positive consequences – if you complete the order successfully and are proud of your own performance.

However, things always become critical when professional stress undermines self-esteem. For example, because an activity seems pointless and lowers one’s own position within the social group. “If I have to write an interim report for two weeks even though it is clear that no one will read it, I feel like the last loser,” explains Zapf. “That has a much more negative effect on my psyche than pure time pressure.”

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Things can become similarly threatening when job conditions undermine personal goals and values; for example, because employees are overwhelmed by tasks and can no longer meet the emotional demands of their job – think of nursing staff or teachers. Time pressure and overload often make it impossible for them to meet their high expectations of themselves.

According to Zapf, this leads first to tiredness and exhaustion, then to alienation and cynicism. “You distance yourself internally from your actions, as a protective shield,” he explains. “But if you do that for too long, you’ll have a problem with yourself.”

Health professions and social services are particularly affected

According to Zapf, those industries in which people work with other people are particularly at risk. Because this work can only be accelerated by limiting yourself to the bare essentials. This is at the expense of the quality and meaningfulness of one’s own actions – and thus of mental health. In fact, according to the “Absenteeism Report” in 2022, employees in the health and social services, public administration, banks, (social) insurance and education sectors were absent due to mental illnesses.

Hermann Burr from the BAuA group names two other sectors at risk: “Mental Stress and Mental Health”. On the one hand, professions that involve material processing because they require a high speed; on the other hand, information processing jobs because they typically have to handle large amounts of work. However, says Burr, “Many other risk factors for mental illness, such as lack of support or poor leadership, are problems everywhere – not just in certain industries.”

The question remains: What can be done about it? Companies are already offering workshops on topics such as time management and mindfulness, where employees can learn to cope better with stress. However, this is exactly what Birgit Greiner and Reiner Rugulies see critically. “In our society there is the opinion that every individual is responsible for their own health,” says the epidemiologist. But in order to prevent mental illness at work, what is primarily needed is not more resilient employees, but better conditions at all professional levels.

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Risks and side effects

BAuA researcher Burr lists a whole range of protective measures that employers can implement. They should give their employees greater influence over the workload and pace. “It’s logically worse for a bus driver than in the office,” says Burr. But even in such jobs, employees can be given more self-determination, for example when it comes to the distribution of shifts.

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The BAuA also recommends setting working hours transparently, reducing interruptions and clearly defining roles, including their tasks and authorities. Last but not least, managers should support their employees better. Burr says: “Recognizing an employee not only means appreciating their successes – but also recognizing when they are under great stress.”

And how about further occupational safety training – just for mental safety? Dieter Zapf is rather skeptical. “There is always a clear solution to ergonomic hazards, right down to the fireproof base for the coffee machine,” he says. “This is not the case with psychological phenomena.” Instead, Zapf would like to implement the “Psychosocial Safety Climate” concept in Germany’s companies, which would be used to determine how much managers are really concerned about the well-being of their employees.

Because he often experienced that superiors only wanted better job conditions so that the workforce would work more. “They care about the health of their employees with dollar signs in their eyes,” he sums up. “That makes them unbelievable – and it doesn’t work.”

Dangers for mental health lurk here

The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has compiled a list of psychological risks at work. These include stressful ones Work tasks such as incomplete, poor variety, socially isolated activities and little opportunity to influence. Also the Work organization and time can become problematic; For example, if there are no breaks, excessively long shifts, unclear communication and responsibility or unfavorable shifts.

Conflictual social relationships such as destructive leadership behavior, verbal aggression and bullying also have negative consequences. Last but not least is an adverse one working environmentwhich is too noisy, poorly lit or inadequately air-conditioned, is another risk factor.

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