It’s not pressing deadlines and mounting responsibilities that cause depression at work — unfair bosses are to blame for low employee morale, according to a study.

Danish researchers got 4500 public employees, including nurses, teachers and admin workers, to fill out questionnaires and be interviewed about their mental health and workplace experiences, to determine whether the employees felt their bosses listened to their needs and treated them equally.

They also measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the participants’ saliva.

The results showed that employees who felt they were treated fairly had better moods, while those who felt their boss was unjust were more likely to be depressed.

“We may have a tendency to associate depression and stress with work pressure and workload; however, our study shows that the workload actually has no effect on workplace depression,” said researcher Dr Matias Brodsgaard Grynderup, a psychologist at Aarhus University.

“This suggests that the risk of workplace depression cannot be minimised by changing the workload. Other factors are involved and it is these factors that we should focus on in the future.”

Grynderup said a lot of people mistakenly associate work pressure with depression.

“When high levels of work pressure and depression appear to be linked in people’s consciousness, it is not because a heavy workload increases the risk of depression — that’s not what we found in our study,” he said.

“Instead, depression can make work assignments appear insurmountable, even though the depression was not caused by the workload.”

Carol Barnes, a consultant psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute, “Most people can cope with stressful situations and heavy workloads if they feel they are supported. If your effort is rewarded through recognition, that can get you through a high burden of work,” she said.

“Imbalance comes when people don’t recognise good work done. If there is a constant drive for quality and things are never good enough, that can threaten an employee’s resilience.”

She suggested that people who feel they are frequently treated poorly by their boss should take action. “It depends on whether it is a one-off or a recurrent pattern,” she said.

“A lot of people will take the attitude that they will ignore it and it will go away or they will leave and go somewhere else. But you can’t keep doing that when you come up against people who are difficult.”

They key is communicating in a calm and reasonable way with their boss.

“Ask for some time to catch up with them in a private conversation. If they are very busy or distant, try to put it in writing in an email,” she said.

“If that is failing and there is someone else above that person, such as a human resources manager or your boss’s supervisors, that may be where you need to go.”

The findings were published in three articles in the scientific journals Occupational and Environmental Medicine,Psychoneuroendocrinology and The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health.

Kimberly Gillan



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