Mental health is your business: The toxic job characteristics that risk our well-being

Key Points

  • Stressful events we experience in the workplace can increase our risk of developing common mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety
  • In particular, two of the most toxic situations are likely to be:
    • Experiencing overwhelming demands alongside having little control over decisions (job strain)
    • Putting in high effort for very little reward
  • Monitoring and addressing these factors in our workplaces may have huge benefits for employees’ mental health

It is estimated that more than 3 in 10 employees will experience a mental health problem each year, with a staggering 80 million working days lost to anxiety and depression (Mind, Rethink). These disorders are common yet devastating, and can make work a constant battle for employees. While we’re not short on physical health and safety rules and regulations in our workplaces, initiatives to prevent and address poor mental health often lag far behind. It’s easy enough to spot and fix physical hazards like an exposed wire or a slippery floor, but what about the invisible hazards that can negatively impact our mental health? With such a widespread impact on employees across workplaces, identifying and addressing these risk factors is vital. What impact might they be having in your workplace?

Researchers Stephen Stansfeld and Bridget Candy (2006) from the University of London conducted a meta-analytic review of the 11 best research studies that examined whether stressful aspects of the workplace increased the risk of developing common mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. They looked at workplace factors that have reliably found to cause stress, such as too many demands on employees, no support from colleagues, and not being rewarded for their efforts. Each study included in the analysis had a longitudinal design, meaning they all studied groups of employees for at least one year. This means we can draw conclusions about cause and effect relationships. All the studies evaluated characteristics of the workplace and measured symptoms of mental health disorders.

Overworked and underappreciated?

The results found that two combinations of harmful work characteristics strongly increased the risk of mental health disorders:

1. A combination of job strain and low control over decision-making. This means that employees who experienced a mixture of overpowering demands with no authority over how to manage their work had a significantly higher risk of developing depression and anxiety. For example, employees at a busy call center might have a huge number of calls and queries to answer, but have very little control over when and how they carry them out.

2. An imbalance of effort vs rewards. Employees who put in a huge amount of effort but saw little in return in terms of recognition, pay or other benefits for their troubles also had a much higher risk of developing these common mental health disorders.


But those weren’t the only dangers. Other risk factors included a lack of support from colleagues and managers, and feelings of job insecurity.

We’ve long known that these factors cause stress, but this review shows us that they go further than that –  they have a serious impact on our mental health.

Takeaways for Practice

So how can we protect our employees (and our own) mental health at work? Just like removing a physical hazard, there are plenty of concrete steps we can take to address the invisible psychological threats around us:

  1. Monitoring stress levels – being aware of a problem is a vital first step. Metrics like sickness absence can be a helpful indicator, while many companies include questions about health and well-being in their employee surveys (for example “I feel able to cope with my workload”.)
  2. Making small changes to manage risk factors – think about the risk factors mentioned in this study – did any of them ring true for your workplace? While reducing your employees’ workload might not be possible, making sure they feel valued for their contributions, and creating a culture of support during busy periods may help buffer against the negative effects of stress.
  3. Adopting a stress management culture – Stress management programmes may sound expensive, but they don’t have to be. Organisations like the UK Health & Safety Executive offer free access to resources such as their Management Standards, which help companies monitor, tackle and prevent workplace stress in a systematic way.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple fix to employee mental health, but taking any of the steps above may have real benefits for your employees, as well as for your business.

To read more about possible solutions, check out our Evidence Summary on Effective Workplace Interventions for Mental Health Disorders at Work.

Trustworthiness score 

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that it has a very high (90%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is only a 10% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Stansfeld, S. & Candy, B. (2006). Psychosocial work environment and mental health- A meta-analytic review. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 32, 443-462.

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