Mental health has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. From unexpected celebrity suicides to a shocking rise in the numbers of Americans killing themselves (the rate of suicides jumped 25 percent since 1999), Americans have been forced to do some soul searching about what's making so many of our citizens so miserable.

And while larger social and economic factors are surely contributing to the rising levels of despair, work must also take some of the blame. We spend close to a third of our prime adult years working, after all, so what happens at the office plays a significant role in our mental health. So what factors make professional life depressing?  

Is it loneliness?

Loneliness may be one factor. Data shows Americans are growing more atomized as they become more disconnected from traditional social ties, like church and civic groups. As behavioral scientist Clay Routledge argued recently in the New York Times, addressing the suicide crisis "will require an understanding of how recent changes in American society -- changes in the direction of greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging -- are increasing the risk of existential despair."

Many modern work environments contribute to this feeling of disconnection, according to former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy. "New models of working -- such as telecommuting and some on-demand 'gig economy' contracting arrangements -- have created flexibility but often reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships. And even working at an office doesn't guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce," he points out.

But according to psychologists there is one factor that is even more likely to nudge employees towards anxiety and depression.

You can do the same job in a much less depressing way.

In a recent Big Think video journalist Johann Hari highlights social scientist Michael Marmot's research into what makes us depressed a work. "If you go to work and you feel controlled, you feel you have few or limited choices you are significantly more likely to become depressed," Hari says, summing up Marmot's work.

Marmot is just one of many psychologists to come to this conclusion. "In the 1960s, psychologist Julian Rotter developed the concept of the locus of control: If you think you are responsible for what happens to you, you're said to have an internal locus of control. If you believe you're at the mercy of others and external events, you have an external locus of control," explains The Cut's Dean Burnett. "Studies have linked an internal locus of control to higher levels of well-being and happiness, even health, in groups as diverse as college students and elderly war veterans."

Humans have certain fundamental psychological needs. They are as hardwired into us as our need for food and oxygen, and they include a sense that we are, at least to some degree, in charge of their own destiny. Take that away and people get very miserable very quickly.

Thankfully, however, the opposite is also true. Hand people back a say over even mundane aspects of their work -- such as their hours, location, clothing, desk decor, or order of tasks -- and you instantly make work more fulfilling, even if you change nothing else about the gig. Science even suggests that giving flexibility to employees will boost their productivity.

As Hari puts it: "There's no reason why any business should be run in this top down, depressogenic, humiliating way."

Happily, that means it is relatively easy for leaders to have a significant impact on their employees' likelihood of experiencing work-related depression: just control people as little as you can. Not only will your employees get more done, but they'll be happier too. That double win should make moving towards a low-control workplace a no brainer for managers.

(PS- It's also possible to make small changes to your workplace to help take a bite out of the loneliness issue as well.)

Published on: Jul 2, 2018