Enhancing health: Impacts of ‘good work’ on mental health

We know that poor working conditions can have long-lasting negative effects on employee’s wellbeing, but there is now strong evidence of the protective effects of ‘good work’. So what is good work and how do we go about creating a health-enhancing workplace?

Historically, research has tended to focus on the negative effects of working conditions – such as work overload, or role conflict and their impacts on mental health. There is now good evidence linking risks associated with the content (e.g. task ambiguity) and context (e.g. poor quality of leadership) of the working environment with poor outcomes for both the individual and the organisation (Stansfeld and Candy, 2006). This research has uncovered a strong incentive to address aspects of the psychosocial working environment that create stress and burnout. Increasingly, however, work is recognised for its potential to have a positive impact on individual and social wellbeing.

So just how strong is the relationship between ‘good work’ and mental health, and what is the benefit of investing in ‘good work’? In this article we profile a range of research including; an academic study by Modini and Joyce (UNSW), Professor Bergen (Norwegian Institute of Public Health), Professor Christensen (Black Dog Institute) and Professors Bryant, Mitchell and Harvey (UNSW) which reviewed international studies defining “good work”, and its outcomes on mental health.

Setting the scene: How does work contribute to mental health?

Population based studies have repeatedly demonstrated that unemployment is one of the biggest risk factors associated with mental illness. Evidence suggests that unemployment both causes, and is caused by, mental illness (Paul and Moser, 2009). Further, individuals who have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness are less likely to find paid employment, leading to ongoing financial, social, and health-related difficulties (Bond et al., 2001). Employment therefore, comes with many benefits.

Of course one of the obvious benefits associated with stable employment is financial security. The role of money in health and life satisfaction has been a research focus for decades and there is certainly evidence that a lack of money can have detrimental effects on an individual’s mental health (Kahn and Pearlin, 2006).

One of the largest influencing factors on mental health appears to be a sense of control over our lives and that is consistently linked to positive health outcomes (Ballis et al., 2001). This is certainly part of the reason that employment is beneficial for mental health – given that financial stability affords us personal control and a sense of freedom. It doesn’t take much imagination though, to realise that the benefits that come with paid employment are more than just what ends up in the bank account at the end of every month. Evidence suggests that whilst money can indeed make us happy and protect our health, there tends to be a ceiling effect (Stevenson et al., 2013). So what is it about work that leads to a higher quality life?

Modini et al. (2016) considered this issue in their recent study which assessed the research evidence for the benefits of good work on mental health. In the Modini et al. review paper, they found that there are strong connections between a positive workplace (e.g. with supportive leaders) and positive mental health outcomes.

Aim

The aim of the study was to establish the strength of the research evidence supporting the protective effects of paid employment on mental health indicators.

Method

The study used the ‘meta-review’ methodology. This method of analysis provides a systematic means of evaluating a broad field of academic work to provide a robust indication of the strength of association between variables of interest (in this case paid work and mental health). A total of eleven previous meta-analyses or reviews that were published between 1990 and 2012 met the criteria for inclusion in the meta-review and four met the criteria for a further appraisal of the findings.

Findings

The findings supported the benefits of work for mental health. Taking a closer look, the researchers found five specific conditions which generated beneficial outcomes:

  1. Autonomy: Consistent with previous evidence that has found a protective effect of control on individual wellbeing, the results of the meta-review highlight that the autonomy that comes with employment tends to protect against mental illness.
  2. Stigma: Socially, there are benefits too – there appears to be a social stigma against unemployment that acts to amplify the negative effects of unemployment. Those who are unemployed may experience discrimination.
  3. Content of work: The content of work itself appears to protect mental health by offering the opportunity to grow and achieve personal goals, both of which are strongly linked to a sense of wellbeing.
  4. Women: Employed females appear to report higher levels of wellbeing, favouring the research that identifies that fair access to resources (including financial resources) for all segments of our community has beneficial effects for individuals.
  5. Supervision: Supportive supervision was also linked to positive mental health outcomes, where helpful, and socially and emotionally supportive leaders were associated with stronger positive mental health outcomes.

Implications

The results of the research suggest that there are positive effects of work on individual mental health. There is also some indication that specific working conditions that lead to ‘good work’ can help to enhance employee mental health.

So what is ‘good work’ and how can we design our workplaces to reap the benefits that ‘good work’ brings? The results of the research by Modini et al., (2016) provide consistent support for the health-enhancing nature of work. Importantly, in order to achieve the benefits, three conditions should be considered.

  1. Ensure that your leaders can ‘lead for wellbeing’

The research reviewed here strongly supports the role that leaders play in the promotion of positive mental health. Supportive leadership practices are known to enhance the positives of work, whilst simultaneously protecting against the negative impacts of stress (Kuoppala et al., 2008). Much of the influence that leaders have in the workplace is due to their ability to provide support – whether that support is in the form of practical guidance, additional resources, or simply emotional uplift. Selecting and developing leaders who exemplify the traits of supportive people managers is essential to ongoing success, and ensuring that wellbeing is incorporated into business metrics will sustain performance over time.

  1. Develop a culture of wellbeing where mental health is everyone’s responsibility

The research reviewed also indicates that some of the largest impacts on positive mental health come from peer relationships. Ensuring that the workplace is a space where individuals feel welcomed, supported and encouraged is everyone’s responsibility, not just the leaders’. Workplace policies and systems are an important building block to the management of behaviour and the development of a positive culture. Clear expectations should be developed that outline how workers can contribute to a respectful and supportive workplace. These expectations should be reinforced to ensure that wellbeing is top of mind no matter what. Employees should also be encouraged to take ownership of wellbeing and craft their own initiatives to boost the connections between colleagues.

  1. Understand the mental health risk profile of your workplace

To realise the benefits of work for both individual mental health and organisational productivity, there is a need to ensure that the risks and protective factors in your particular workplace are known. This means spending time analysing your current state, paying particular attention to the specific context of your working environment. It also means speaking with your workforce to understand their unique needs and perspectives, and tailoring solutions to these. The most effective workplace solutions that promote positive mental health, are those that ensure removal of risks to mental health are the focus (i.e. addressing any modifiable risks to mental health that might be present in the workplace) whilst also building individual resources to manage mental health and ensuring that the appropriate supports (e.g. EAP and mental health awareness training) are available to all employees.

Conclusion

The research reviewed identifies strong reasons to invest in the positive mental health of employees. Employment comes with significant benefits for mental health, and providing ‘good work’ in a supportive work environment can enhance the bottom line, whilst simultaneously improving our collective community health. There are key organisational levers that are needed which can help to achieve positive mental health. Importantly though, an approach that integrates efforts across all layers of the organisation is essential to ensure sustained wellbeing and productivity.

For more information, contact Amanda Allisey (aallisey@deloitte.com.au), Sustainability Services

To read the full article, see Modini, M. et. al., (2016). The mental health benefits of employment: Results of a systematic meta-review. Australasian Psychiatry, 24(4), 331-336.