In February 2010, the New York Times ran an article about depression by Jonah Lehrer. The same article appeared in some of Australia’s weekend newspapers in early March. Lehrer looks at the issue of depression and considers whether there is a potential upside to the disorder by looking back as far as Charles Darwin for expressions of depression. He makes a challenging statement:
“…that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction.”
Lehrer goes on to make a case for depression being a possible source of creativity.
He refers extensively to the evolutionary psychology research of Andy Thomson and Paul Andrews who acknowledge that
“… depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms.”
Perhaps, particularly in the relatively recent consideration of depression in workplaces, we are being too narrow and too specific. Perhaps the case for workplace depression being made by some of the “depression sellers” is too targeted and we need to remind ourselves of the sociology of work, a perspective that seems to have gone out of fashion.
In 1972 Michael Argyle wrote “The Social Psychology of Work“*in which he discusses the issue of mental health and work. Significantly Argyle does not use the term “depression” in relation to work factors, and only as a mental condition of the individual. He prefers to talk about “mental health at work” a concept that is much more readily applicable to workplace activity and is not exclusive.
The advantage of focusing on mental health rather than any of the individual components is that the approach is more compatible with the principles of safety management and, regrettably, with the trendy concept of workplace culture. Very importantly, it takes control of the workplace health and safety agenda back from the depression sellers and the wellness peddlers.
A major advantage of jumping back almost 40 years is that we look at the basics of work without the complication of computers, the internet, and social networking. Also, although some of the language may seem quaint, it reminds us that the issue of mental health at work has been studied for many decades and, maybe, a basic understanding of the history of the topic could clarify some contemporary perspectives.
“Work is one of the central activities of life, a source of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, the basis of identity, and a main object of motivation; it can be the cause of mental health or mental ill health. There is a definite relationship between mental health and job satisfaction – satisfied workers have better mental (Kornhauser, 1965)……”(page 245)
It may amaze some that the link between job satisfaction and mental health was researched as far back as 1965. It also useful to consider the differentiation made between health and ill-health just as some people emphasise the difference between stress and distress, although this etymological battle may have been lost.
Argyle goes on to quote some statistics from 1960 and 1947.
“Many workers suffer from mental ill health in one form or another. In a study of 3,000 engineering workers in Birmingham it was found that about 10 per cent were suffering from ‘disabling neuroses’, and another 20 per cent from minor neurotic complaints (Fraser, 1947). In a national sample survey of 2,460 Americans 31 per cent they had problems on the job and 26 per cent both had problems and did not really feel adequate at their jobs (Gurin et al., 1960).”
Feelings of “adequacy” at work sound very contemporary and just maybe there is a continuity of researcher, treatment, and solution from 1960 to 2010. Let’s look at the workplace factors that Argyle stated affect mental health in 1972:
- Nature of the work
- Job status
- The working group
- Role conflict
Most of these concepts would be familiar to the safety managers and HR practitioners. “Competition” relates to the physical health impacts of high blood pressure and others in supervisors and managers. The “working group” has many similarities to what we call workplace culture. Below is an excerpt that sounds a little like Psychology 101 but could easily be reworded into occupational bullying:
“…if a person is rejected by the group, this will be far from therapeutic; being ‘sent to Coventry’ is a terrible experience, and such rejection usually makes the person leave the company. If a group member deviates from group norms he will be under group to conform; this has the effect of increasing physiological indices of anxiety, until he gives way by conforming. Workers who are placed under pressure to work or in a different way feel more strain (Wolfe, cited by Zander and Quinn, 1962).”
Argyle also mentions:
“Neuroticism is a matter of degree – everyone is a little neurotic – and the percentage said to be neurotic depends on the cut-off point used. ‘Disabling neurosis’ may affect 10 per cent of workers, but any larger percentage goes into very mild degrees of ‘neurosis’.”
Neuroticism is not a word that seems to have been applied to the current workplace mental health context but the definition provided at Wikipedia shows that the concept remains relevant and is being researched. Perhaps, neuroticism is a better unifying term for wellness and wellbeing than mental health.
Jonah Lehrer in the New York Times article and Michael Argyle in “The Social Psychology of Work” both illustrate that depression is not new and that the role of work in mental health is not new. Next time depression sellers and wellness peddlers say that psychosocial hazards have only recently appeared, remember Argyle and Lehrer.
What would be more accurate is that we are in the most recent stage of trying to understand mental health in contemporary terms. We are almost redefining mental health for this century BUT from concepts that are already decades old and without acknowledging them. To deny history is to deny the origin of our selves and the efforts of our forefathers. We are denying the existing core body of knowledge in pursuit of trying to create a new one that we can control and exploit, when we should be building from that knowledge and giving credit where it is due.
A more recent edition of Michael Argyle’s book was published in 1989