According to an Australian study published in BMJ Open, being highly engaged at work is not necessarily a good thing. The researchers found evidence that employees who were more engaged worked longer hours and, in turn, had a greater risk of developing major depression symptoms. Notably, the study also found that working for an organization that does not prioritize mental health tripled employees’ risk of major depression symptoms.
Psychology studies have shed light on various aspects of the work environment that can influence an employee’s risk of developing depression, such as job strain and lack of decision-making power. Study authors Amy Jane Zadow and her colleagues propose that working long hours, which is becoming increasingly common, can also increase an employee’s risk of developing depression.
Zadow and her team conducted a longitudinal study to explore whether working long hours would predict the development of major depression symptoms one year later. A final sample of 1,084 Australians who worked at least 35 hours per week took part in the study. The employees completed assessments at baseline and then again one year later. Questionnaires asked them to indicate the number of hours they worked per week, with the categories being 35–40, 41–48, 49–54, and 55 or more hours.
The surveys also included assessments of major depressive symptoms, engagement at work (e.g., ‘At my work, I feel bursting with energy’), and psychosocial safety climate (e.g., ‘Senior management acts decisively when a concern of an employee’s psychological status is raised’).
The researchers used multiple logistic regression analysis to look for new cases of major depression symptoms at the 12-month mark, after accounting for baseline symptoms. When the researchers omitted participants with mild symptoms of depression, those who belonged to the group working 41–48 hours per week or the group working more than 55 hours a week showed an increased risk of developing depression symptoms.
Interestingly, mediation analysis found that work engagement was tied to a higher risk of depression symptoms through longer working hours, again for the group working 41-48 hours and the group working more than 55 hours. Zadow and her colleagues say that this finding suggests that employees who are highly engrossed in their jobs risk developing major depression symptoms by dedicating too many hours to the job.
“Overly engaged workers might tend to become workaholics ignoring early signals of depressed mood, continue working and develop major depressive disorders,” the study authors note. Apparently, feeling engaged and energized at work does not protect against the psychological impact of working extended hours.
The analyses unearthed another striking finding. Working for an organization with a poor psychosocial safety climate — meaning the organization does not prioritize the mental health of employees — was found to triple an employees’ risk of developing symptoms of major depression. The researchers note that a workplace’s dedication to mental health is likely related to many other job factors that have the potential to influence depression symptoms, such as workload, workplace pressure, and workplace harassment.
While many organizations champion employee engagement, suggesting it to boost employee well-being and performance, the study authors caution that this may not be the ideal approach. “These findings are important because they suggest that policymakers and clinicians should focus the efforts on improving the climate for psychological health, PSC, and consider the potential implications of prioritising and rewarding work engagement, to prevent new cases of major depression.”
The study had its limitations — people working for organizations with high psychosocial safety climate scores were more likely to drop out of the study and not be included in their analyses. It is unknown whether people with major depression symptoms who were working for high PSC organizations may have been underrepresented.
The study, “Predicting new major depression symptoms from long working hours, psychosocial safety climate and work engagement: a population-based cohort study”, was authored by Amy Jane Zadow, Maureen F Dollard, Christian Dormann, and Paul Landsbergis.