Psychosocial work conditions linked with both positive and negative mental health

Institute for Work & Health study finds greater job control, job security and social support are linked to lower risks of mental illness and greater likelihood of flourishing mental well-being

Published: July 30, 2019

A growing body of evidence suggests that greater job control, job security and social support at work—working conditions that fall under the umbrella term “psychosocial factors”—are linked with lower risks of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses among workers. However, less is known about what factors might support their positive mental health.

A new study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) now suggests that greater job control, job security and social support are also linked with a greater likelihood of workers’ experiencing positive mental well-being—i.e. life satisfaction, personal growth, sense of purpose in life, social contribution and social integration.

What’s more, the study found that the link between working conditions and mental well-being is stronger than the link between working conditions and the risk of mental illness.

This study highlights the double value of workplace policies and practices that improve psychosocial working conditions by giving workers greater job control, job security or social support, says IWH Senior Scientist and Associate Scientific Director Dr. Peter Smith, the lead researcher on this study.

The study was published in the June 2019 issue of the Annals of Work Exposures and Health (doi:10.1093/annweh/wxz028).

Better workplace conditions are linked not only with lower risks of mental illnesses, but also with an increased likelihood of workers having flourishing mental health, Smith adds.

This study also reaffirms that not having a mental illness and having good mental health are related, but distinct, concepts. They can be influenced by psychosocial factors differently.

Smith’s research team conducted the study by drawing on Statistics Canada’s 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). It asked people across 10 provinces about a wide range of health-related topics, including their health status and health behaviours, their psychosocial work environment, and other work and personal factors.

This study focused on the survey results of about 10,000 people aged 15 to 74, who worked at least eight hours a week and were not self-employed. It zeroed in on their responses to questions about work conditions (e.g. job control, psychological demands, social support and job security), mental health disorders (e.g. major depressive episodes, generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder) and positive mental health (e.g. life satisfaction, personal growth, purpose in life and social integration). It also looked for differences in responses between men and women.

The study found that psychosocial work conditions were linked with both mental disorders and positive mental well-being. All else being equal, a higher level of job control, job security and social support at work increased the odds of a worker being free of mental health disorders by eight to 15 per cent. They also increased the odds of a worker experiencing positive mental well-being by 10 to 14 per cent. The findings were similar for both men and women, once personal factors were taken into account.

When comparing the effects of psychosocial work factors on the negative and positive mental health outcomes reported by the workers surveyed, the research team found a stronger relationship between working conditions and flourishing mental health than between working conditions and having a mental disorder. In other words, as workers reported higher levels of job control, social support or job security, their mental well-being improved more than their risks of mental disorders declined.

Conversely, as these work conditions deteriorate, their impact on worsening mental well-being may be more acute than their effect of raising the risks of mental illnesses, notes Jonathan Fan, an IWH S. Leonard Syme fellow and lead author of the study.

Workplaces that implement policies and practices to tackle mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety will be encouraged to know that their efforts may have an impact in more ways than one, says Fan. That is, by improving work conditions, they may not only reduce mental disorders; they may also go even farther in raising workers’ satisfaction with life, their sense of purpose and their connectedness to community.

Fan adds that the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey provided a welcome opportunity to look at the effect of work on positive mental health. It’s not often that we come across a robust survey of health and work factors that asks about both mental disorders and positive aspects of mental health, he says.