The one factor causing depression and anxiety in the workplace | Johann Hari | Big Think (2023)


The one factor causing depression and anxiety in the workplace
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Expressions like "feeling down" or "feeling low" are more literal than we think, says Lost Connections author Johann Hari. A 30-year field study of wild African baboons by the incredible Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky has shown that there is a remarkable relationship between depression, anxiety, and social hierarchies. Male baboons—who live in a very strict pecking order—suffer the most psychological stress when their social status is insecure, or when they are on the bottom rung, looking up at the luxuries of others. Does it sound familiar yet? "If you live in the United States... we’re at the greatest levels of inequality since the 1920s," says Hari. "There’s a few people at the very top, there’s a kind of precarious middle, and there’s a huge and swelling bottom." It's no coincidence that mental health gets poorer as the wealth gap continues to widen: depression and anxiety are socioeconomic diseases. The silver lining is that this relationship has been discovered. Could an economic revolution end the depression epidemic? And, most curiously, what can we learn from the Amish on this front? Johann Hari is the author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
Johann Hari is the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream, which is being adapted into a feature film. He was twice named Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International UK. He has written for many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the Nation, Slate, El Mundo, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a lead op-ed columnist for the Independent, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, for nine years. He is a regular panelist on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. His TED talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong,” has more than 20 million views.
Johann Hari: When I feel depressed, like loads of people I say, “I feel down,” right?
And as I was learning about the causes of depression and anxiety for my book 'Lost Connections' I started to realize—I don’t think that’s a metaphor. There’s this amazing professor at Stanford called Robert Sapolsky who, in his early twenties, went to live with a troop of baboons in Kenya. And it was his job to figure out: when are baboons most stressed out?
So his job was to hit them with little tranquilizer darts and then take a blood test and measure something called cortisol, which is a hormone that baboons and us release when we’re stressed. And baboons live in this hierarchy—so the females don’t, interestingly—but the men live in a very strict hierarchy. So if there’s 30 men, number one knows he’s above number two. Number two knows he’s above number three. Number 12 knows he’s above number 13. And that really determines a lot; it determines who you get to have sex with, it determines what you get to eat, it determines whether you get to sit in the shade or you’re pushed out into the heat. So really it's significant where you are in the hierarchy.
And what Professor Sapolsky found is that baboons are most stressed in two situations. One is when their status is insecure. So if you’re the top guy and someone’s circling which comes for you, you will be massively stressed.
And the other situation is when you feel you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy, you’ve been kind of humiliated. And what Professor Sapolsky noticed—and then it was later developed by other scientists—is, when you feel you’ve been pushed to the bottom, what you do is you show something called a submission gesture.
So you, baboons will raise— I say “you,” I assume no baboons are watching this, maybe they are—a baboon will put its body down physically or put it’s head down or put its bottom in the air and it will cover its head. So it’s clearly seems to be communicating: “Just leave me alone. You’ve beaten me, okay? You’ve beaten me.”
And what lots of scientists, like Professor Paul Gilbert in Britain and Professor Kate Pickett and Professor Richard Wilkinson, also in Britain, have really developed is this idea that actually what human depression is, in part—not entirely, but in part—is a form of a submission gesture. It’s a way of saying, “I can’t cope with this anymore,” right. Particularly people who feel th...
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I learned about nine causes of depression and anxiety, for which there’s scientific evidence with different sets of solutions.

But I’ll, just give you a very quick example of one., I noticed that lots of people I know who were depressed and anxious.

Their, depression and anxiety focuses around their work.

So I started looking at, well.

How do people feel about their work? What’s going on here? Gallup? Did the most detailed study that’s ever been done on this.


They found is 13 percent of us like our work.

Most of the time.

Sixty-three percent of us are what they called “sleepwalking” through out work.


Don’t like it., We.

Don’t hate it., We, tolerate it.

Twenty-Four percent of us hate out jobs.


You think about that 87 percent of people in our culture.

Don’t like the thing.

They’re doing most of the time.

They did send their first work email at 7:48 a.m.

and clock off at 7:15 p.m.

on average.

Most of us.

Don’t want to be doing it.


This have a relationship to our mental health? I started looking for the best evidence, and I discovered an amazing Australian, social scientist called Michael Marmot, who I got to know who discovered, the story of how he discovered.

It is amazing.

But I’ll give you the headline.

He discovered the key factor that makes us depressed and anxious at 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 or actually even more likely to have a stress-related heart attack.


This is because of one of the things that connects so many of the causes of depression and anxiety.

I learned about.

Everyone watching.

This knows that you have natural physical needs, right., You need food.

You need water.

You need shelter.

You need clean air.


I took them away from you.

You would be in trouble.

Real fast, right., There’s, equally strong, evidence that we have natural psychological needs., You’ve got to feel you belong; You’ve got to feel your life has meaning and purpose; You’ve got to feel that people see you and value you; You’ve got to feel.

You’ve got a future that makes sense.


If human beings are deprived of those psychological needs, they will experience extreme forms of distress.

Our culture is good at lots of things.

We’re, getting less and less good at meeting people’s deep underlying psychological needs.


This is one of the key factors why depression is rising.

And that opens, just to finish the point about what that opens up, a very different way of thinking about how we solve these problems, right.


If control at work is one of the drivers of this depression and anxiety epidemic.

So I think, well, what would be an antidepressant for that,? Right.

What would solve that?.

In, Baltimore I, met a woman called Meredith Keogh as part of an amazing transformation.

Meredith used to go to bed every Sunday night just sick with anxiety.

She had an office job.

It wasn’t the worst office job in the world.

She wasn’t being bullied, but she couldn’t bear the thought that this monotony was going to be the next 40 years of her life.

Most of her life.


One day Meredith did an experiment with her husband.


Josh had worked in bike stores since he was a teenager.


It’s insecure, controlled work, as you can imagine.

And one day, Josh and his friends in the bike store, just asked themselves:.

What does out boss actually do? They liked that boss.? He wasn’t a particularly bad guy, but they thought, “Well.

We fix all the bikes.” They didn’t like this feeling of having a boss.

They decided to do something different.

So Meredith quit her job.

Josh and his friends quit their jobs.

They set up a bike store that works on a different.

Older principle., It’s, a democratic cooperative, not a corporation.


The way it works is there is no boss.


Take the decisions together, democratically by voting.

They share out the good tasks and the bad tasks.

They share the profits.

And, one of the things that was so interesting to me going there, which is completely in line with Professor Marmot’s findings is how many of them talked about how depressed and anxious they’d been when they worked in a controlled environment, and they weren’t depressed and anxious, now., Now.

It’s important to say:.

It’s not like they quit their jobs fixing bikes and went to become like Beyoncé’s backup singers, right?, They fixed bikes, before.

They fixed bikes, now.


They dealt with the factor that causes depression and anxiety.

As Josh, put it to me.

There’s no reason why any business should be run in this top down, depressogenic, humiliating, way, right.


Modern corporation is a very recent invention.

Think about how many people you know who feel terrible today if they were going into work tomorrow to a workplace that they controlled with their colleagues.


There had to be a boss.

They elected the boss and the boss was accountable to them.


They chose the priorities for their workplace.

A lot of people would feel very differently.


That is an antidepressant, right.


Antidepressants should absolutely remain on the menu.

They, give some relief to some people.

That’s, valuable.


We need to look for antidepressants that deal with the reasons why we’re depressed.

So I was able to identify nine causes of depression and anxiety and seven antidepressants like this, which are actually about dealing with the reasons why we feel this way, and not just blunting the symptoms.


What causes depression and anxiety in the workplace? ›

Potential Triggers of Work Depression

Depression can impact your ability to perform your job well, and stress at work can also contribute to a person becoming depressed. Some work-related triggers that can cause major depression or stress include: A high workload. Being asked to do things outside your competency level.

What factors contribute to depression in the workplace? ›

What causes depression in the workplace?
  • Toxic work environment.
  • Being overworked.
  • Working irregular hours.
  • Unsafe working conditions.
  • Being underpaid.
  • Lack of clarity in your role.
  • Micromanagement.
  • Poor or unsafe working conditions.

What causes stress and anxiety at work? ›

Causes of work-related stress

These include: demands of your job – for instance, feeling like you have an excessive workload or unrealistic targets or deadlines. feeling that you lack of control over the way you do your job. not having enough support or information from managers or colleagues.

How does anxiety and depression influence productivity in the workplace? ›

Staff members experiencing anxiety may be less likely to share their opinion on projects, collaborate openly, or participate in culture-building activities. Employee anxiety can also present itself as: fatigue. presenteeism.

What is the cause of mental health in workplace? ›

Long hours, understaffing, a lack of support, and harassment in the workplace can ramp up your stress levels and contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

What are the effects of anxiety in the workplace? ›

Our own research found that workplace anxiety is contributing to levels of presenteeism, with 1 in 5 employees reporting that poor mental wellbeing affects their productivity. We must also consider the cost of staff turnover: those experiencing anxiety are more likely to leave their job.

What are the 3 factors that lead to a depression? ›

What Are the Main Causes of Depression?
  • Abuse. Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can make you more vulnerable to depression later in life.
  • Age. People who are elderly are at higher risk of depression. ...
  • Certain medications. ...
  • Conflict. ...
  • Death or a loss. ...
  • Gender. ...
  • Genes. ...
  • Major events.
Apr 25, 2023

What is the biggest risk factor for depression? ›

Socially stressful and traumatic life events, limited access to resources such as food, housing, and health care, and a lack of social support all contribute to depression risk.

What does depression in workplace mean? ›

persistent or prolonged feelings of sadness or low mood. loss of interest in tasks at work, especially duties that you previously found interesting and fulfilling. feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, or overwhelming guilt.

What are the top 5 causes of stress in the workplace? ›

Top 10 causes of stress at work
  • Excessive workload. According to CIPD, workload is the most common cause of work-related stress. ...
  • Lack of control. ...
  • Lack of support. ...
  • Senior staff. ...
  • Peers. ...
  • Other factors. ...
  • Job security. ...
  • Insufficient training.

What are reasons for anxiety? ›

These factors may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder:
  • Trauma. ...
  • Stress due to an illness. ...
  • Stress buildup. ...
  • Personality. ...
  • Other mental health disorders. ...
  • Having blood relatives with an anxiety disorder. ...
  • Drugs or alcohol.

What are the effects of depression on employees? ›

It contributes to presenteeism, or employees at work but not engaged, and absenteeism, or employees missing days of work. It may also adversely impact multiple areas of employee performance, including focus and decision making, time management, completing physical tasks, social interactions, and communication .

How does stress and anxiety affect work performance? ›

Unfortunately, when job stress comes into play, employees find it difficult to concentrate, meet deadlines, and utilize their creativity. More significantly, stress can trigger other mental health concerns that impact job productivity— including burnout, anxiety, depression, and conflict.

How stress affects your work performance? ›

Lack of Focus

Stress affects your ability to remember things you already know, to process new information you are learning and to apply both to analytical situations and physical tasks that require concentration.

Can a job give you anxiety and depression? ›

Work overload and a job that doesn't leverage your talents and skills can contribute to both burnout and depression. So can a toxic workplace setting, unrealistic job expectations, and lack of boundaries between your work and personal life.

Why high stress levels is the main reason that leads to depression among employees? ›

Workplace stress also has adverse effects on workers' mental health, with an increased risk of anxiety, burnout, depression, and substance use disorders. Workers who are stressed at work are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor dietary patterns.

Is depression and anxiety a disability in the workplace? ›

Is Depression Covered by the ADA? Depression, along with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions, is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA has been in place since 1992 and is meant to protect people with disabilities from being discriminated against by employers.

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