The one factor causing depression and anxiety in the workplace

Author Johann Hari says our jobs may be at the root of widespread depression and anxiety.

I learned about nine causes of depression and anxiety, for which there’s scientific evidence with different sets of solutions.

But I’ll just give you a very quick example of one.

I noticed that lots of people I know who were depressed and anxious. Their depression and anxiety focuses around their work.

So I started looking at, well, how do people feel about their work? What’s going on here?

Gallup did the most detailed study that’s ever been done on this. What they found is 13 percent of us like our work most of the time. Sixty-three percent of us are what they called “sleepwalking” through out work. We don’t like it. We don’t hate it. We tolerate it. Twenty-four percent of us hate out jobs. If you think about that 87 percent of people in our culture don’t like the thing they’re doing most of the time. They did send their first work email at 7:48 a.m. and clock off at 7:15 p.m. on average. Most of us don’t want to be doing it.

Could this have a relationship to our mental health?

I started looking for the best evidence, and I discovered an amazing Australian social scientist called Michael Marmot who I got to know who discovered, the story of how he discovered it is amazing, but I’ll give you the headline.

He discovered the key factor that makes us depressed and anxious at work:

If you go to work and you feel controlled, you feel you have few or limited choices you are significantly more likely to become depressed or actually even more likely to have a stress-related heart attack.

And this is because of one of the things that connects so many of the causes of depression and anxiety I learned about. Everyone watching this knows that you have natural physical needs, right. You need food. You need water. You need shelter. You need clean air. If I took them away from you, you would be in trouble real fast, right. There’s equally strong evidence that we have natural psychological needs. You’ve got to feel you belong; You’ve got to feel your life has meaning and purpose; You’ve got to feel that people see you and value you; You’ve got to feel you’ve got a future that makes sense.

And if human beings are deprived of those psychological needs they will experience extreme forms of distress.

Our culture is good at lots of things. We’re getting less and less good at meeting people’s deep underlying psychological needs. And this is one of the key factors why depression is rising.

And that opens, just to finish the point about what that opens up, a very different way of thinking about how we solve these problems, right. So if control at work is one of the drivers of this depression and anxiety epidemic so I think well what would be an antidepressant for that, right. What would solve that?

In Baltimore I met a woman called Meredith Keogh as part of an amazing transformation. Meredith used to go to bed every Sunday night just sick with anxiety. She had an office job. It wasn’t the worst office job in the world, she wasn’t being bullied, but she couldn’t bear the thought that this monotony was going to be the next 40 years of her life, most of her life.

And one day Meredith did an experiment with her husband Josh. Josh had worked in bike stores since he was a teenager. Again, it’s insecure, controlled work, as you can imagine. And one day Josh and his friends in the bike store just asked themselves: what does out boss actually do? They liked that boss. He wasn’t a particularly bad guy, but they thought, “Well, we fix all the bikes.” They didn’t like this feeling of having a boss. They decided to do something different.

So Meredith quit her job. Josh and his friends quit their jobs. They set up a bike store that works on a different, older principle. It’s a democratic cooperative, not a corporation. So the way it works is there is no boss. They take the decisions together democratically by voting. They share out the good tasks and the bad tasks. They share the profits.

And one of the things that was so interesting to me going there which is completely in line with Professor Marmot’s findings is how many of them talked about how depressed and anxious they’d been when they worked in a controlled environment and they weren’t depressed and anxious now.

Now it’s important to say: it’s not like they quit their jobs fixing bikes and went to become like Beyoncé’s backup singers, right? They fixed bikes before, they fixed bikes now. But they dealt with the factor that causes depression and anxiety.

As Josh put it to me, there’s no reason why any business should be run in this top down, depressogenic, humiliating way, right. The modern corporation is a very recent invention.

Think about how many people you know who feel terrible today if they were going into work tomorrow to a workplace that they controlled with their colleagues. If there had to be a boss, they elected the boss and the boss was accountable to them. Where they chose the priorities for their workplace. A lot of people would feel very differently. Now that is an antidepressant, right. Chemical antidepressants should absolutely remain on the menu. They give some relief to some people. That’s valuable. But we need to look for antidepressants that deal with the reasons why we’re depressed. So I was able to identify nine causes of depression and anxiety and seven antidepressants like this which are actually about dealing with the reasons why we feel this way, and not just blunting the symptoms.

Author Johann Hari says work may be at the root of widespread depression and anxiety. There is one key factor that makes many jobs cause stress. Addressing it could lead to re-organizing many companies but much happier workers.

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