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High pressure jobs linked to depression and anxiety

AUGUST 01, 2007

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London have published a new study linking high-pressure jobs to the onset of depression and anxiety in young working men and women with no pre-employment history of either condition.  The study, supported by the Medical Research Council (MRC) amongst others, is published in the August issue of the Cambridge University Press journal Psychological Medicine and is the first of its kind to link pressurised work and the development of mental health conditions.

Adding to previous research which has explored the impact of work stress on mental health, this new study shows that work stress affects the occurrence of depression even when workers have no previous history of a psychiatric disorder.  In addition, the effect of work stress is also independent of other factors which are known to predict clinically-significant depression and anxiety, such as personality factor and socio-economic position.   In this study, clinically–significant depression and anxiety are defined according to criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association as conditions that require medical treatment. 

The study team at King’s and at the Dunedin Medical School in New Zealand assessed 1,000  men and women aged 32 who participate in the longitudinal Dunedin Study*.  The results showed 14 per cent of working women and 10 per cent of working men had suffered a first episode of depression or anxiety at age 32.   45 per cent of those new cases of depression and anxiety among young workers who previously hadn’t been diagnosed with any mental health condition were attributable to work stress.  Using a questionnaire frequently used to assess work stress, the study showed that this group of participants were exposed to high psychological job demands – including an excessive workload and extreme time pressures.   

Lead author, Dr Maria Melchior, an epidemiologist at the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London, said: 
"Our study shows that work stress appears to bring on diagnosable forms of depression and anxiety in previously healthy young workers – in fact the occurrence is two times higher than among workers whose jobs are less demanding. Clearly we can also deduce that work stress is associated with mental health problems of clinical significance that have health-care and financial implications for wider society.

A key strength in our research is that the participants were interviewed when they were 32 years old, as this is an age when individuals are settling into their professional careers and are less likely to have opted out of more stressful jobs, unlike older workers."
Professor Richie Poulton, a co-author on the paper, based at the Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand, added:
"As young adults have the highest risk of developing these conditions, it is important to alleviate work stress amongst this group, as well as directing prevention efforts towards them.  Intervention studies show that there are at least two productive approaches to reducing work stress: it’s possible to teach people to deal with distressing situations through psychological counselling or you can change the workplace in a way that decreases job demands."

Notes to editors: 
Participants in this study are part of the on-going longitudinal Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a longitudinal investigation of health and behaviour in a complete birth cohort (Moffitt et al. 2001). Study members were born in Dunedin, New Zealand between April 1972 and March 1973.

This research is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the United States National Institute of Mental Health, the William T Grant Foundation, the Health Research Council of New Zealand, and the Division of Research and Evaluation of France’s Ministry of Health. 

Maria Melchior, Avshalom Caspi, Barry J. Milne, Andrea Danese, Richie Poulton and Terrie E. Moffitt Work Stress precipitates depression and anxiety in young, working women and men. Psychological Medicine,37(8), 1119-1129. doi: 10.1017/S0033291707000414.
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