"Can Work Make You Mentally Ill?" Research Update

Our experience at work will always have an impact on our mental health, either in a positive or negative way, and to lesser or greater extents. The relationship is indisputable. Yet, it is difficult to draw direct causation between the two. Is it even our job that is causing harm to our mental health or is it something else in our environment? Are some jobs worse than others for our mental health? If so, what makes them so bad? Do only specific workplace factors have an effect while the others are irrelevant? The questions can go on forever!

Research on the Relationship Between Work & Mental Illness

A group of scientists set out to review the most recent research on this topic to provide an updated answer the question “Can work make you mentally ill?”. Harvey et al. (2017) analyzed 37 review studies to determine whether certain kinds of work can increase the incidence of mental illness, specifically anxiety, depression, and/or work related stress.

To summarize their research they stated there is moderate evidence to support that: “high job demands, low job control, high-effort-reward imbalance, role stress, bullying and low social support in the workplace are associated with a greater risk of developing mental health problems” (Harvey et al., 2017). 

Defining the factors

Let's break it down a bit further. 

  • High Job Demands: "Increased workload or time pressure" (Harvey et al., 2017).
  • Low Job Control: "Minimal decision-making" (Harvey et al., 2017).
  • Role Stress: This includes for example, "role ambiguity" - when a worker is not given clear information about what their role/responsibilites entail, or "role conflict" - when two or more of the worker's roles/responsibilities are in opposition (Harvey et al., 2017)
  • Bullying & Low Social Support:  When undesired or harmful actions are persistently committed against an employee  for an extended period of time (Harvey et al., 2017).

Limitations of the Research

As with all research, there are always some limitations. The authors of this study caution us saying that although "the evidence for a prospective relationship is strong" (Harvey et al., 2017)  between certain workplace factors and mental illness, a causal relationship cannot be concluded just yet. Furthermore, they remind us that we must take into account that every individual has unique traits that will interact with workplace factors differently than any other individual (Harvey et al., 2017). 

Take-home Messages

This is the first review (to the knowledge of the researchers and myself) that summarizes the available research on the topic. The evidence suggests that there IS a relationship between certain workplace factors and a growing risk of certain mental illnesses (Harvey et al., 2017). What we can do is be aware of these factors, be aware that our mental health can be at risk by unhealthy workplace situations, and be active participants in contributing to the mental wellness of our workplace through the sharing of findings on this issue. 

Did any of the research findings surprise you? Which factor(s) do you think is(are) the most problematic in today’s workplaces? Whose responsibility should it be to ensure that our work is not causing us mental harm? Please share your thoughts with us on this research in the comments below! 



Harvey, S. B., Modini, M., Joyce, S., Milligan-Saville, J.S., Tan, L., Mykletun, A., Bryant, R. A., Christensen, H., & Mitchell, P. B. (2017). Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review or work related risk factors for common mental health problems. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 74, 301-310. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2016-104015

Photo Credit: https://www1.bournemouth.ac.uk/sites/default/files/assets/images/research-impact2.jpg