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A Toxic Workplace Triples Your Risk of Depression, a New Study Finds

Inc. logo Inc. 7/28/2021 Jessica Stillman
diagram: A Toxic Workplace Triples Your Risk of Depression, a New Study Finds © Getty Images A Toxic Workplace Triples Your Risk of Depression, a New Study Finds

You know toxic workplaces are bad for mental health. You'll be surprised by how bad.

When Google set out on a massive research project to find out what makes teams successful a few years ago, they discovered something surprising. How smart team members are matters a lot less than how much they trust each other. Google called this essential quality for great teams "psychological safety," but in everyday language it just means teams who are supportive and respectful perform better. Turns out the secret to success is just being nice.

It also may be the secret to teams that don't make their members seriously depressed. When Australian researchers reviewed data on more than 1,000 workers recently, they discovered that working for a company that lacks psychological safety triples a person's chances of suffering from major depression.

Toxic teams kill both success and mental health.

The study was run out of The University of South Australia and recently published in the British Medical Journal. Its basic premise was simple: follow a group of workers over a year to see who among them is diagnosed with serious depression, then check to see what workplace factors are influencing people's chances of mental health issues.

After the numbers were crunched, the results were crystal clear. If you work at a company that doesn't value your psychological well-being, your risk of depression doesn't just go up a bit -- it shoots up 300 percent.

What does not valuing psychological health and safety look like in practice? The research team evaluated companies' commitment to mental health using a standard scale that asks workers to agree or disagree with statements such as "senior management acts decisively when a concern of an employee's psychological status is raised" and "senior management considers employee psychological health to be as important as productivity."

Or as lead researcher Amy Zadow put it, "Companies that fail to reward or acknowledge their employees for hard work, impose unreasonable demands on workers, and do not give them autonomy are placing their staff at a much greater risk of depression."

The (crystal clear) takeaway

This study's concept of psychological safety isn't exactly the same as Google's, which stresses risk-taking and the ability to fail without fear, but it's pretty close. And taken together, the two results suggest that toxic workplaces where employees are bullied, demeaned, unappreciated, and worked past their breaking point are both less successful and actively harmful to team members' mental health.

That might not be super surprising, but the scale of the rise in the risk of depression is, which makes the takeaway crystal clear. If you are leading a toxic workplace, fix it. If you're not, leave it (especially right now when employers are falling over themselves to attract talent). And if you can't leave it permanently, at least take a vacation.

Separate research shows that skipping out on vacations also doubles your risk of depression. So at a minimum, take a break, regroup, and consider how you can either improve your work environment or escape it. Because staying is a high road to serious psychological trouble.

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