Adverse Working Conditions and Depression: A Strong Link

Feb 12, 2014, 9:00 AM


Human Capital Blog: How does your study differ from previous research exploring the link between adverse working conditions and depression?

Sarah Burgard: The main contribution of this study was in the way we measured working conditions. Most studies that have looked at adverse working conditions and depression, or other measures of health, have looked at one adverse working condition at a time, such as job strain, job insecurity, or job dissatisfaction. But every job comes with a whole package of working conditions. We felt that capturing multiple indicators at the same time might give us a truer sense of the size, the magnitude, and the power of the association between work and depression.

Also, while some previous studies relied on longitudinal data that included multiple interviews with workers over time, they often excluded workers who did not participate in every interview because those workers didn’t have a measure of the focal working condition at every possible interview. That’s a problem because people who have worse jobs are probably more likely to drop out of longitudinal studies or leave work. Our approach was different; we analyzed data from everyone who participated in at least one interview, using all possible working conditions measure collected at each wave. We created an “overall working conditions score” at each wave using item response theory models. As a result, were able to get a more representative picture.

HCB: What is the main takeaway from your study?

Burgard: Using these new measuring and modeling strategies, we found a pretty strong correlation between one’s overall working condition score and his or her depressive symptoms, even after controlling for things like age, race, educational achievement, occupational status, number of work hours, family income, chronic health conditions, and neuroticism.

HCB: How prevalent are adverse working conditions?

Burgard: We measured 27 different working conditions, and each is different. Around one-third of workers said they were dissatisfied with their jobs, for example, so that was pretty common. About 17 or 18 percent of workers said they were likely to lose their job in the next couple of years. About 33 to 35 percent of workers said they would have a difficult time finding another job that paid about the same, if they were to lose their job. We used these indicators, and many more, to create an overall score specific to a given interview period so we could get the total impact of working lives on depressive symptoms.

HCB: What is the cost to employers of depression?

Burgard: A July 2013 Gallup poll found that depression costs U.S. workplaces $23 billion in absenteeism. Twelve percent of workers have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, the study found. Together, they miss 68 million more workdays than workers who have not been depressed.

HCB: What can be done to alleviate the problem?

Burgard: As a society, we’re very focused on treating depression at the individual level. We tell people to change their behavior, to get enough sleep, to exercise regularly, to eat well, and to stop smoking. We tell people to follow the doctor’s instructions and to take their medications. Individuals can do a lot to improve their health that way. But a lot of jobs come with a whole host of adverse working conditions, and individuals are rarely in a position to reorganize the labor market or change the conditions under which they have to work. It’s important to think about how treating individuals alone may not necessarily solve their mental health problems.

HCB: What area of research are you looking at next?

Burgard: I’m interested in how big macroeconomic shocks like the Great Recession affect people across the income spectrum. What are the outcomes for people who are stuck in bad jobs, and how much bigger is the gap between socially advantaged workers and everyone else? What has happened to people who were at the bottom, the minimum-wage folks, and the folks at the bottom of the middle class? A lot of those folks were really hit hard. These were people with decent paying jobs and a stable work history. But the recession wiped out some of these jobs and damaged many people’s retirement funds accounts. What are these people doing now, what kind of strategies are they using to pick up the pieces?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.