A fair organisation can prevent depression

Chaotic piles of paper on the desktop are not the cause of depression. But a large-scale survey from Aarhus shows that unfair managers and workplaces with unclear working procedures can be.

[Translate to English:] En ny undersøgelse fra Aarhus viser, at uretfærdige chefer og arbejdspladser med uklare arbejdsgange kan være årsag til depression. Foto: Tonny Foghmar, Aarhus Universitetshospital.
[Translate to English:] En ny undersøgelse fra Aarhus viser, at uretfærdige chefer og arbejdspladser med uklare arbejdsgange kan være årsag til depression. Foto: Tonny Foghmar, Aarhus Universitetshospital.

You might think that a large volume of work duties could trigger a depression. But that is not necessarily the case. It is first when those piles of paper are combined with an unfair manager and a workplace with inscrutable procedures that things can go wrong.

This is the conclusion of new research from Aarhus University Hospital, Aarhus University, Bispebjerg Hospital, Regional Hospital West Jutland and the National Research Centre for the Working Environment.

Nearly 4,500 public employees from Aarhus have participated in an extensive study of the correlation between psychological workplace environment and depression. The studies were carried out between 2007-2009 and consisted of questionnaires, personal interviews and saliva swabs, which were used to measure the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the participants.


Fairness is crucial

"We were surprised to see that fairness in the workplace is so crucial for whether people develop a depression," says Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup, PhD and psychologist at the Occupational Medical Clinic at Aarhus University Hospital.

"We measured both participants' experience of the organisational fairness - that is, whether the workplace organisation is perceived as being fair. And the relational fairness; in other words, whether the manager is perceived as being fair. The results showed that workplaces characterised by a low degree of fairness had a greater risk of developing depression."

New methods gave more precise results

The surveys carried out by Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup and his colleagues differ from similar international studies, as they are not based on the individual's experience of the working environment, but on the average experience among the healthy employees in a department. So the results are not affected by the fact that depressed employees often have a negatively tinged experience of their work environment due to their illness.

The researchers also point out that you have to be careful when using their studies to explain why the individual employee becomes depressed. This is because depression is an illness with many and often unknown causes.


Multiple tasks and stress hormone are not a dangerous cocktail

In addition to fairness in the workplace, the researchers also examined whether a large workload or pressure of work were factors that trigger a depression. But this turned out not to be the case.

"Many previous studies have suggested that a large pressure of work increased the risk of a depression. But we did not find that correlation. That also means we cannot conclude that less pressure of work should be a way to prevent depression."


The researchers also conducted a biological test where they measured the level of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva swabs from the participants. Previous studies have shown that a high level of cortisol can lead to depression.


"But our results actually showed the opposite - that is to say that a high level of the stress hormone cortisol prevented depression."


Depression can be prevented

All in all Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup thinks that there should be more focus on the role of the manager.

"In popular terms you can say our studies show it does not matter whether you are busy at work - just as long as you are being treated fairly by your manager."

"Our results open up new opportunities for preventing depressions because a work environment that is perceived as being unfair can be changed. What I am thinking of here is management style, where there is a clearly expressed desire to treat your employees properly - combined with an organisation that has clear and transparent working procedures."



Further information:


Psychologist, PhD Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup

Aarhus University, Department of Clinical Medicin and Aarhus University Hospital, Occupational Medical Clinic, Aarhus University Hospital
Tel. +45 20287788
E-mail: matigryn@rm.dk