Is Your Job Bad For Your Brain?

 
bad jobThe daily grind — five days out of every seven, you wake up, go to work, leave work, go to bed. Rinse and repeat. There’s no way around it–if you’re working full-time, you spend almost half your waking hours on the job.

So how does this affect your brain?

Research all over the world shows strong associations between certain job characteristics and different aspects of mental health: cognitive functioning, cognitive decline, psychological distress, and mental disorders.

So how does your job measure up? Here, we’ve reviewed the evidence and compiled a list of the three most important questions to ask yourself.

1) What’s the emotional toll of your job?

Jobs with higher emotional demands and/or less job security carry greater risk of mental illness, according to a recent, large-scale national UK survey.

Below are examples of jobs ranking higher-than-average in rates of common mental disorders:

  • Primary and secondary teachers
  • Clerical and secretarial positions
  • Welfare community
  • Youth workers
  • Security staff
  • Waiters and bar staff
  • Nurse auxiliaries and care assistants
  • General managers
  • Sales occupations
  •  
    If the emotional demands of your job leave you drained at the end of the day, take plenty of time to replenish yourself when you can, whether it’s a brisk walk, a relaxing hobby, or just talking to your spouse or a friend. And if changes in your behavior or mood begin to interfere with your ability to cope with everyday life, don’t hesitate to seek a professional opinion.

    2) Is your job intellectually demanding?

    The saying is true–use it or lose it. Studies show that jobs with relatively low intellectual demands may put you at higher risk of cognitive decline later in life.

    In a recent study, Taiwanese workers in agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, fishing, craft and related trades, elementary occupations, and housekeepers were two to three times more likely to suffer cognitive decline with age than former legislators, business executives, government administrators, and managers.

    Similarly, in a French study, farm workers were six times more likely to have cognitive impairment than those in “intellectual” jobs; also at higher risk were farm managers, domestic service employees, and blue collar workers.

    So if your job doesn’t challenge your brain regularly, you might consider supplementing your daily activities with intellectual stimulation off the clock, whether it’s a brain teaser at breakfast or social interaction after the day is done.

    3) Are you working too many hours?

    Over 55 hours a week and you’re at risk of reduced cognitive functioning, says a recent study in Finland. In middle-aged workers, researchers demonstrated impairment in reasoning, short-term memory, and vocabulary following periods of over-time work.

    Working long hours is also linked to psychiatric disease. In the same Finnish cohort, workers putting in over 11 hours a day were almost 2.5 times as likely to suffer a major depressive episode in the five years following the initial study. Depressive symptoms and anxiety were also increased in the overtime workers, particularly in women.

    Other factors to consider are whether you feel a sense of organizational justice, which is linked to higher cognitive functioning, and whether you feel like your job contributes to society, which is associated with lower levels of psychological distress.

    Finally, you should ask yourself: is a poor job worse than no job at all?

    Obviously, food on the table is a must. But a recent Australian study suggests that—strictly psychologically speaking — the answer is “no.” Results showed that those employed with low quality jobs had the same prevalence of common mental disorders as those unemployed. So, while employment pays the bills, the psychological impact of your job is an important consideration.

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    References

    Stansfeld SA, Rasul FR, Head J, Singleton N. (2011) Occupation and mental health in a national UK survey. Soc Psychiatr Epidemiol. 46: 101-110 PMID: 20033130

    Ozaki K, Motohashi Y, Kaneko Y, Fujita K. (2012) Association between psychological distress and a sense of contribution to society in the workplace. BMC Public Health 12:253.

    Virtanen M, Singh-Manoux A, Ferrie JE, Gimeno D, Marmot MG, Elovainio M, Jokela M, Vahtera J, Kivimaki M. (2009) Long working hours and cognitive function: the Whitehall II Study. Am J Epidemiol 169: 596-605.

    Virtanen M, Stansfeld SA, Fuhrer R, Ferrie JE, Kivimaki M. (2012) Overtime work as a predictor of a major depressive episode: a 5-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study. PLoS One 7: e30719.

    Virtanen M, Ferrie JE, Singh-Manoux A, Shipley MJ, Stansfeld SA, Marmot MG, Ahola K, Vahtera J, Kivimaki M. (2011) Long working hours and symptoms of anxiety and depression: a 5-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study. Psychol Med 18:1-10.

    Li CY, Wu SC, Sung FC. (2002) Lifetime principal occupation and risk of cognitive impairment among the elderly. Ind Health 40: 7-13.

    Dartigues JF, Gagnon M, Letenneur L, Barberger-Gateau P, Commenges D, Evaldre M, Salamon R. (1992) Principal lifetime occupation and cognitive impairment in a French elderly cohort (Paquid). Am J Epidemiol 135:981-988.

    Butterworth P, Leach LS, McManus S, Stansfeld SA. (2012) Common mental disorders, unemployment and psychosocial job quality: is a poor job better than no job at all? Psychol Med 22: 1-10.

    Elovainio M, Singh-Manoux A, Ferrie JE, Shipley M, Gemeno D, DeVogli R, Vahtera J, Virtanen M, Jokela M, Marmot MG, Kivimaki M. (2012) Organisational justice and cognitive function in middle-aged employees: the Whiteall II study. Epidemiol Community Health 66: 552-556.

    Image Source: iStockphoto/jhorrocks

     
     

    Leslie Jellen

    Leslie Jellen is a research scientist and science writer who earned a PhD in Neuroscience as an NIH Ruth R Kirschstein Fellow at Penn State University. She earned her BS in Psychology, thus while she is a trained biologist, she approaches problems from a behavioral perspective. Her research centers on the genetics of brain iron regulation and how that relates to Restless Legs Syndrome. When not actively researching, she enjoys writing about all topics related to the brain.