Not having job flexibility or security can leave workers feeling depressed, anxious and hopeless

The way jobs are structured affects employee mental health, an analysis of more than 18,000 workers shows.

By Monica Wang Published on Mar 26, 2024.
Warehouse employees frequently lack control over their own schedules. Andres Oliveira/E+ via Getty Images

When employees don’t have control over their work schedules, it’s not just morale that suffers – mental health takes a hit too. That’s what my colleagues and I discovered in a study recently published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

As a public health expert, I know that the way our jobs are designed can affect our well-being. Research has shown that flexibility, security and autonomy in the workplace are strong determinants of health.

To understand how powerful they are, my colleagues and I looked at the 2021 National Health Interview Survey, a major data collection initiative run out of the National Center for Health Statistics. We analyzed responses from 18,144 working adults across the U.S., teasing out how job flexibility and security may be linked with mental health.

The respondents were asked how easily they could change their work schedule to do things important to them or their family, whether their work schedule changed on a regular basis, and how far in advance they usually knew their schedules. They also rated their perceived risk of losing their job in the next 12 months.

We found that workers who had more flexible work arrangements were less likely to report feelings of depression, hopelessness and anxiety. Similarly, those with greater job security were at lower risk of mental health challenges. We also found that higher job security was linked with fewer instances of missing work over the past year.

Why it matters

The average full-time worker dedicates a third of their lifetime waking hours to work. Given that fact, understanding how job design affects mental health is key to developing policies that bolster well-being.

It’s clear why employers should care: When workers aren’t feeling well mentally, they’re less productive and more likely to miss work. Their creativity, collaboration and ability to meet job demands also suffer, hurting the entire organization.

The impact of job-related stress extends beyond the workplace, affecting families, communities and health care systems. People grappling with work-related mental health challenges often require multiple forms of support, such as access to counseling, medication and social services. Not addressing these needs comprehensively can cause serious long-term consequences, including reduced quality of life and increased health care costs.

It’s important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened mental health disparities and that individuals in lower-wage positions, front-line workers and people in marginalized communities continue to face additional challenges. In this context, understanding exactly how job and work design can affect people’s mental health is all the more important.

What’s next

My research team plans to examine how race and gender affect the links between job flexibility, job security and mental health.

Previous research suggests that women and people of color experience unique workplace stressors that harm their mental well-being. For instance, women continue to face barriers to career advancement, unequal pay and a higher burden of unpaid care work.

Similarly, employees of color often experience discrimination, microaggressions and limited opportunities for professional growth at work, all of which can harm mental health. Understanding gender and racial differences will help researchers and organizations develop targeted interventions and policy recommendations.

Mental health challenges are far from rare: More than 50 million Americans, or nearly 1 in 5 adults, live with mental illness. By creating workplaces that prioritize employee well-being – through flexible work arrangements, supportive policies and access to mental health resources – organizations can help build a healthier society.

The Research Brief is a short take on interesting academic work.

Monica Wang does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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