Commentary: Among low-income earners in the UK, an epidemic of poor mental health

Commentary: Among low-income earners in the UK, an epidemic of poor mental health

Having an abusive boss and a low-paid job make you vulnerable to poor mental health, say three organisational behaviour experts.

Work stress
(Photo: Pixabay/caio_triana)

LONDON: Being lower on the pecking order at work is associated with having serious psychiatric problems, our latest research shows. 

Abusive managers negatively affect the emotional and psychological well-being of those beneath them, and they make workers feel more paranoid and hyper-vigilant at work, according to our study of over 4,000 UK workers of different job ranks, aged 16 to 65. 

We also found a worryingly high prevalence of mental health problems among low-paid workers in non-managerial roles.

Among all workers, we found that 19 per cent showed signs of depression, 15 per cent had thought about suicide in the last month, 10 per cent felt paranoid, 7 per cent had a psychotic or a personality disorder and 4 per cent had hallucinations.


Low-paid workers were significantly more likely to have symptoms of paranoid personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder than those whose jobs were managerial.

The lower a person’s income, the worse their mental and physical health.

Our study only measures associations, so we cannot argue that having a low-ranking job causes mental disorders, but research tells us that having a low-paid job makes you vulnerable to poor mental health because of uncontrollable stress at work caused by strict working conditions, job insecurity, poor pay and poor promotion prospects.

These are all factors that can be, and are, shaped by the organisation itself.

Depression in a corner
(File photo: AP)

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Even among those workers who had not been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, many exhibited mental health symptoms when we assessed them. This included 38 per cent of workers being irritable, 34 per cent being tired, 19 per cent having symptoms of depression and 18 per cent having anxiety.

Although having these symptoms by themselves does not mean that people have a mental disorder, it is highly likely that when exposed to acute stress, especially over a long period of time, these symptoms will develop into a mental disorder. 

So it seems there is a hidden epidemic of poor mental health in the UK workplace that is not being addressed.

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To find out if the work environment is to blame for poor mental health in workers, we conducted additional studies of UK workers.

In our first study of 90 UK workers, we found that reporting experiences of abusive supervision, which refers to a boss showing verbal or non-verbal hostility – making derogatory comments, having temper outbursts, being intimidating, withholding information or humiliating their underling – was related to low mental well-being.

Abusive supervision was also related to an increase in paranoia in workers – a belief that bosses are malevolent and are persecuting them. But the availability of organisational support appeared to buffer the negative effects of abusive bosses.

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In our experimental study of 100 UK workers, we asked half of study participants to watch a video of an employee being abused by their boss and asked them to imagine that they were the ones being abused. The other half were asked to view a video of a supervisor being friendly.

We found that those exposed to the video showing an abusive boss were more likely to show signs of paranoia than those in the control group.

Those who imagined being abused by the boss were more likely to report an intention to engage in workplace deviance, such as stealing or spreading false rumours as retaliation.

office colleagues
Two colleagues in a discussion. (Photo: Unsplash)


It’s easy to see how an abusive boss can create a toxic workplace. Their behaviour can cause employees to act out in ways that are stressful to others, in turn, potentially perpetuating poor mental health in their colleagues.

Our research quite clearly shows that there are social and organisational triggers for poor mental health in the workplace, but the availability of support in the workplace could improve matters.

Companies should understand that they are ethically responsible for the well-being of their workers. Mental health in the workplace must be taken seriously to curb this hidden epidemic.

Rusi Jaspal is professor of psychology and sexual health at De Montfort University. Barbara Cristina da Silva Lopes is senior researcher at University of Coimbra. Caroline Kamau is lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)