Research finds higher levels of paranoia and mental health problems among low-income workers

A ground-breaking analysis of 4,596 workers has revealed that toxic workplaces are to blame for serious mental health problems.

The new research shows that symptoms of paranoia and other mental health problems are at their worst among workers in low-ranking jobs, in terms of income and job role.

Mental health at work

Psychologists found that those who worked in hierarchical workplaces without any supervisory or managerial responsibilities were suffering the most.

These workers show signs of paranoid personality disorder (having unjustified doubts about the loyalty of others, bearing grudges and feeling persecuted by powerful others) and avoidant personality disorder (evading interpersonal contact and feeling inadequate socially and suffering from low self-confidence and self-worth).

Dr Bárbara Lopes, Dr Caroline Kamau and Professor Rusi Jaspal from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) and Birkbeck, University of London, carried out the research.

This adds weight to other research they have done showing that abusive supervisors and managers are responsible as they bully employees, take credit for their accomplishments, fail to give positive feedback, shout at them or behave rudely.

They found a total of 19 per cent of workers have signs of depression, 15 per cent have thought about suicide, 10 per cent feel paranoid, seven per cent have a psychotic or personality disorder, and four per cent have had hallucinations.

The study revealed the lower a person’s income, the worse their chances of good mental and physical health. For example, those in non-managerial jobs feel less power over their workload and are at greater risk of uncontrollable job stressors such as stringent working conditions, job insecurity, poor pay or poor promotion prospects.

It was found that that three per cent of workers had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Depression was found to be the most common mental illness, followed by anxiety, panic attacks, anorexia/bulimia and obsessive compulsive disorders.

Even among those who had not been diagnosed, many suffered mental health symptoms when assessed on a clinical scale.  This included 38 per cent of workers being irritable, 34 per cent being fatigued, 19 per cent with symptoms of depression, 18 per cent with anxiety, 17 per cent with poor memory, 12 per cent with a phobia and seven per cent with obsessions.

The psychologists are now warning that these symptoms can develop into psychosis and other serious mental disorders if workers are exposed to acute stress.

Professor Jaspal, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at De Montfort University, said the research had implications for organisational policy and culture.

He said: “This research should encourage self-reflection among leaders themselves. I believe that significant change can be enacted at the individual level.

"Leaders should reflect on their own behaviour and engagement with employees and ask themselves whether or not this has the potential to compromise the mental health and well-being of employees.”

Dr Lopes from CINEICC Universidade de Coimbra said: “Most companies do not have appropriate mental health support for workers. Many workers lack a voice against bullying managers leading to workers developing paranoid and avoidant strategies to cope.

"We believe that is vital that companies recognise that they are ethically responsible for the mental and physical well-being of workers. We also advise that NHS mental health services take into consideration the impact of workplace problems on mental health.”

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Dr Kamau from Birkbeck Centre for Medical Humanities, University of London, said: “Mental health problems are worst when there is a steep hierarchy separating the rights and pay of ordinary workers compared to managers or supervisors.

"Many organisations also buy employee surveillance software, which is not helping workers with paranoia.

"We have found that workers with an abusive supervisor or manager are more likely to exhibit paranoia symptoms.

"Organisations often do nothing when workers complain about appalling managers, which is awful, and I would like to encourage the government to fine organisations that do nothing about management practices that worsen the mental or physical health of employees.”

The study also found:

  • One in three employees have been on sick leave in 12 months, with 37 per cent of workers having a long-standing illness.
  • 43 per cent have been a hospital patient in 12 months.
  • 10 per cent of workers feel paranoid as they believe people are deliberately against them.
  • More than 90 per cent of workers drink alcohol, suggesting self-medication to cope with workplace stress.

The research, titled The Roles of Socioeconomic Status, Occupational Health and Job Rank on the Epidemiology of Different Psychiatric Symptoms in a Sample of UK Workers, has been published in the Community Mental Health Journal and can be read in full here.

Posted on Wednesday 16th May 2018

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