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The work environment affects the risk of mental illness

The work environment affects the risk of mental illness

Mental illness appears to be becoming more common, although it is more difficult to measure. It is clear that the mental health of the self-categorized population has deteriorated and the proportion of sick leave due to mental illness has increased.

We have moved from a work life with a very high physical load and a lack of work environment, to a life where we can instead talk about the mental work environment, where the psychological and social work environment has very high demands. Juneell Hensing says sick leave reflects this change.

Work can be positive for health by offering routines, social contacts and livelihoods. But if there are deficiencies in the work environment, the risk of mental illness increases instead.

Research shows, for example, that an imbalance between effort and reward, a lack of compassionate support and precarious working conditions increase the risk of depression and fatigue.

Uncertain working conditions are important, I think, because more and more people have temporary jobs. There are also differences between genders and different sectors. Many women working in the health and care field suffer from precarious working conditions as they work by the hour.

The risk of depression also increases if there is workplace bullying or conflict. The same is true in work environments where employees have a low impact on their work situation at the same time that they have high demands on themselves.

It’s about, for example, being able to decide for yourself when you should take a break from your work and if you have to work too quickly, Gunnel Hensing explains.

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“Employers want to make the imperfection lie in someone’s character,” says Anna Karen Wagerlind Stahl, an ergonomics researcher. It criticizes the fact that individual measures are taken when the problem is organizational.

Photo: Kim Ekkerstad

In Sweden, employers are legally obligated to work systematically with work environment issues. This also applies to the psychosocial work environment, where there is support for such work to have a good effect.

There are many studies that show that if managers and employees together address the risks they face in the psychosocial work environment and then develop a joint plan to address them, you can prevent mental illness, Hensing says.

It is one of the positive impact measures mentioned in the research summary Recently produced by the Swedish Public Health Agency and the University of Gothenburg. Gunil Hensing is one of the authors. Researchers conducted 44 different studies and found as many as 32 studies where the measures examined had positive effects on mental health. The result was, among other things, reduced sleep problems, restlessness and anxiety.

Junel Hensing, Professor of Social Medicine at the University of Gothenburg says:

“You have to make time to work in the work environment,” says Junel Hensing, professor of social medicine at the University of Gothenburg.

Photo: Magnus Lidberg

Talking about problems in the organization and letting employees learn stress management techniques are some of the measures.

At the same time, ignorance about mental illness is high among employers – and the topic is shrouded in both prejudices and myths. That’s the view of ergonomics researcher Anna Karen Stoll, who recently wrote a book on the topic. She criticizes the fact that solutions often target individuals, even when the problem is structural.

We know the work environment is a major risk factor, but employers want to make the deficiency lie in someone’s personality, she says.

Could that not be the case then?

Yes, but it’s like smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. Not everyone understands it, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the risks. It is not enough to live in good health in general if you continue to smoke. Sending people to mindfulness sessions does not have a long-term effect.

So what then leads to healthy, satisfied employees? It’s often about flipping the stakes, according to Junel Hensing. Reasonable workload, influence, and a good social climate are examples of so-called health factors.

– In a way, it’s not that hard, but you have to make time to improve the work environment and focus on it, says Gunnel Hensing.

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