Workers Have High Rates of Psychological Distress

July 22, 2008
Nearly five percent of employees suffer from psychological distress levels associated with a high likelihood of a mental disorder, reports a study in the July Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Led by Michael F. Hilton, Ph.D., of The University of Queensland, Australia, the study was based on a survey of more than 60,500 full-time employees of 58 Australian companies. Workers anonymously completed the "Kessler 6" questionnaire, which asked how often they felt sad, nervous, hopeless, etc. Scores of 13 or higher (on a 24-point scale) indicated high psychological distress, with a high likelihood of a mental disorder.

Overall, 4.5 percent of the employees had high psychological distress. Another 9.6 percent had moderate psychological distress (score of 8 to 12), indicating a "possible" mental disorder.

Just 22 percent of workers with high psychological distress were currently receiving treatment for a mental health condition. Another 29 percent said they had a mental disorder but had never sought treatment, while 31 percent denied having any problem.

Risk Factors

Workers in sales positions were at greatest risk of high psychological distress: 5.6 percent of men and 7.5 percent of women. Workers expected to work long hours (60 or more per week) also had high rates of psychological distress. Another risk factor was working in "non-traditional gender roles" – for example, women who worked as equipment operators or laborers and for men who worked in clerical or administrative jobs. Marital separation and low education were also linked to high psychological distress.

Corporate occupational health and safety programs increasingly are taking an active approach to prevention, screening and early treatment for workers’ physical health problems. Companies have been less proactive, however, in identifying and providing treatment for workers with mental health problems. Despite extensive evidence showing the high rates and costs of mental health disorders in the workplace, many employers have the perception that their employees are somehow immune to such problems.

The new study demonstrates a high rate of psychological distress in the working population. The risk factors identified may help in targeting groups of workers at high risk of psychological distress and mental health problems.

"Employers need to focus health resources on a common, debilitating, largely untreated illness group that substantially reduces employee productivity at work, increases absences from work, and increases employee attrition," Hilton and colleagues write.

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine is the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

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