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Home > Research Articles > Highly Educated Workers at Greater Mental Health Risk


Monday, March 31, 2003


A highly educated workforce may have worse mental health than the general U.S. population, according to a recent survey by medical center researchers. Published in the March/April issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion, the study could have implications for organizations with a large number of employees with advanced degrees.

"We havent specifically looked at mental health in a highly educated work force before, but thats the workforce that the future is going to bring us," said Cheryl Koopman, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine and first author on the study. She said worse mental health means more sick days and more frequent trips to the doctor not to mention problems concentrating on the job.

The researchers assessed mental health in 460 employees of an unspecified Bay Area organization with a much higher-than-average number of people who have masters and PhD degrees. As a group, the randomly chosen employees reported being less happy, less able to handle stress and more nervous and depressed than people in the general population who have taken this widely used survey.

As a whole, this group scored in the 32nd percentile; the general population averages in the 50th percentile.

In addition to education, the study looked at whether work or home stress, age, gender, alcohol intake and ability to cope with problems were related to mental health. They found that older people tended to score higher on the mental-health questionnaire than younger people, and that highly educated women had better mental health than highly educated men. This last finding was a surprise, given that women on the whole reported worse mental health than men.

In keeping with previous studies, this group also found that employees who had stress at home or at work, drank in excess or avoided problems rather than dealing with them directly had the lowest overall mental health scores. Feeling satisfied at home or at work seemed to buoy the employees mental health.

Koopman said these results may suggest ways for employers to keep their workers happier and healthier. "This does raise the idea that finding additional sources of satisfaction at work could lead to higher morale," Koopman said. Other studies have found that boosting satisfaction can be as easy as complimenting employees, and giving them autonomy with their projects and enough time to finish tasks.

Other strategies that could help put employees on a path to better mental health are programs that help them manage stress at work or at home or teach them how to actively cope with problems rather than avoiding them. "If you were going to target people for additional support you might want to target younger people," Koopman said, because the younger people in this study reported overall worse mental health.

Koopman stressed that this study only looks at correlations between mental health and other factors in this specific population. "We need to find out if our results are generalizable to other work sites," Koopman added. The study also does not address whether or how these factors sway mental health. For example, the study couldnt identify whether being distressed made some people drink in excess, or if some other factor linked problem drinking with worse mental health.

The Stanford Help Center offers classes and other services to help employees manage work- or home-related stress. To learn more, visit http://www.stanford.edu/dept/ocr/helpcenter/

Other Stanford researchers who participated in this study include Stanly Wanat, PhD, deputy program director; Shelly Whitsell, program coordinator; Darrah Westrup, PhD, staff psychologist; and Robert Matano, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, emeritus.

© Health News Digest.com 2003 All Rights Reserved.