Less mental illness, more flourishing at work

Written by
Gabrielle Lis

Can interventions that target the psychosocial work environment reduce mental illness AND contribute to flourishing mental health?

  • People whose work has positive psychosocial characteristics (e.g. high levels of control and good social support) are more likely to have flourishing mental health.
  • They are also less likely to have a mental illness, though the effect is not quite as strong.
  • Less mental illness and more flourishing are both good outcomes for employers.
  • Similar workplace interventions can be used to promote flourishing and reduce mental ill-health.

Mental health, according to the World Health Organisation is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

It’s an umbrella term that encapsulates emotional wellbeing (e.g. feeling positive emotions including life satisfaction), psychological wellbeing (e.g. having a purpose in life) and social wellbeing (e.g. being connected to others, making a contribution to the greater good).

Mentally healthy people tend to perform well at work. According to Australian organisation Heads up “…the evidence shows that people who achieve good standards of wellbeing at work are more likely to display a range of skills that will also benefit their employers. In workplaces that are set up to foster wellbeing people tend to be more creative, more loyal, more productive, and perform better in terms of customer satisfaction.”

Mental illness, on the other hand is a health problem that has a significant negative effect on “how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people”. Common examples of mental illness in Australia include depression and anxiety. Less commonly, we see things like schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, and eating disorders.

Work may suffer as a result of mental ill health. The World Health Organisation lists a number of negative workplace consequences of mental illness, including absenteeism, lower performance and productivity, increased turnover and burnout, less motivation and commitment, tension between colleagues and poor relationships with clients.

It’s possible to be free of mental illness without experiencing the personal flourishing inherent in mental health. For this reason, researchers think that it could be useful to take an integrated approach in the workplace, focusing on promoting mental health whilst also preventing mental illness.


Does work cause mental illness?

Certainly, there’s an association between some negative psychosocial aspects of work and common mental illnesses (e.g. depression and anxiety). Relevant psychosocial characteristics include job strain (i.e. high demands, low control), low levels of social support at work, low job security and a poor balance between effort and reward.


Do the same psychosocial characteristics impact mental wellbeing?

Researchers accessed data for more than 10,000 Canadians aged 15-74 years old who worked for at least eight hours each week. The data was collected as part of the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey.

Survey participants completed the Job Content Questionnaire, rating psychosocial aspects of their work, namely decision latitude, psychological demands, social support, physical demands and job insecurity. They answered questions that allowed the researchers to assess whether they had one of three mental illnesses in the last 12 months: a major depressive episode, generalised anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. They also answered questions about various aspects of positive mental health, comprising emotional wellbeing, social functioning and psychological functioning.

Based on the survey results, the researchers divided the participants into a couple of comparison groups. Firstly, those with negative mental health (i.e. one or more mental health disorder) compared to those with no disorders. Secondly, those with flourishing mental health compared to those with languishing or moderate mental health.

After analysing the data, the researchers found that, as expected, there were associations between some mental disorders and the psychosocial characteristics of work. Namely:

  • There were higher levels of depression when workers reported less control over their work and less social support.
  • Workers reported more anxiety when they had less job control, higher levels of psychological demands and lower job security.
  • There were no associations between work characteristics and bipolar disorder.

Flourishing mental health was associated with higher levels of:

  • Job control;
  • Social support; and
  • Job security.

Workers who reported lower physical effort at work were more likely to have languishing mental health.

There was no link between positive mental health and psychological demands at work.

Although most of the psychosocial work characteristics studied here impacted both mental flourishing and mental illness, there were some differences worth noting.

The impacts were slightly different for men compared to women. Men who reported higher job security were less likely to have a mental disorder but for women this was not the case.

More importantly, higher levels of job control and social support had a stronger impact on positive mental health than negative mental health. For physical demands, there was no association with mental disorders; just the link between low physical demands and low flourishing.

This suggests that better psychosocial work conditions could well reduce mental ill health and lead to greater flourishing. However, the impact on flourishing is likely to be larger. Future research—and workplace interventions—should keep both potential benefits in mind.


Original research

Fan, Jonathan & Mustard, Cameron & Smith, Peter. (2019). Psychosocial Work Conditions and Mental Health: Examining Differences Across Mental Illness and Well-Being Outcomes. Annals of work exposures and health. doi: 63. 10.1093/annweh/wxz028.

*This article was written by Gabrielle Lis. All views, opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the authors and/or speakers and do not necessarily reflect the view, opinion, conclusion and/or policy of ExamWorks and its affliates.


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