Workers have high rates of 'psychological distress'

Results may aid employee mental health efforts

Nearly 5% of employees have high levels of psychological distress associated with a high likelihood of a mental disorder, reports a recent study.1

Led by Michael F. Hilton, PhD, of The University of Queensland, Australia, the study was based on a survey of more than 60,500 full-time employees of 58 Australian companies. Workers anonymously completed the "Kessler 6" questionnaire, which asked how often they felt sad, nervous, hopeless, etc. Scores of 13 or higher (on a 24-point scale) indicated high psychological distress, with a high likelihood of a mental disorder.

Overall, 4.5% of the employees had high psychological distress. Another 9.6% had moderate psychological distress (score of 8-12), indicating a "possible" mental disorder.

Just 22% of workers with high psychological distress were currently receiving treatment for a mental health condition. Another 29% said they had a mental disorder but had never sought treatment, while 31% denied having any problem.

Workers in sales positions were at greatest risk of high psychological distress: 5.6% of men and 7.5% of women. Workers expected to work long hours (60 or more per week) also had high rates of psychological distress.

Another risk factor was working in "non-traditional gender roles," such as women who worked as equipment operators or laborers and for men who worked in clerical or administrative jobs. Marital separation and low education also were linked to high psychological distress.

Corporate occupational health and safety (OH&S) programs are increasingly taking an active approach to prevention, screening, and early treatment of physical health problems in workers. However, companies have been less proactive in identifying and providing treatment for workers with mental health problems. Despite extensive evidence showing the high rates and costs of mental health disorders in the workplace, many employers have the perception that their employees are somehow "immune" to such problems.

The new study, using methods familiar to OH&S professionals and managers, demonstrates a high rate of psychological distress in the working population. The risk factors identified may help in targeting groups of workers at high risk of psychological distress and mental health problems.

"Employers need to focus health resources on a common, debilitating, largely untreated illness group that substantially reduces employee productivity at work, increases absences from work, and increases employee attrition," Hilton and colleagues write.


  1. Hilton M, Whiteford H, Sheridan J, et al. The prevalence of psychological distress in employees and associated occupational risk factors. J Occup Environ Med 2008; 50: 746-757.