Does caring for others damage your mental health?

This blog is dedicated to the memory of the paper’s lead author, the luminary Allison Milner, whose recent death has left the world a poorer place.

Health work and caring make up a significant proportion of jobs in high-income countries – but how does the mental health of people in those jobs compare with others? And how does the mental health of those in higher-status medical jobs compare with that of those in lower-skilled and lower-paid caring jobs? Tania King and colleagues* at the University of Melbourne turned to a major Australian longitudinal study for answers.

The health and social care workforce is very diverse, encompassing both those with the highest levels of skill and salary and those with some of the lowest. Yet all those workers have one thing in common: they work primarily in jobs which involve caring for others.

This means the emotional demands of the job are high: these workers often experience threats of or actual violence, for instance, and tend to have low levels of control over their work. This has been shown to lead to burnout, high levels of sickness absence and high job turnover.

We used the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, a nationally representative study which has collected information from more than 13,000 people each year since 2001, to look at three questions:

  • Are job conditions in health and care more stressful than those in other sectors?
  • Do job stressors affect the health of health and care workers more than they affect others?
  • If health and care workers do suffer more than others, is that linked to the type of people who tend to go into that type of work and how they react to stress?

On the first question, we found that overall the working conditions of those in caring and support work jobs – the lower-paid, lower-skilled end of the sector – were worse than those in higher-status medical jobs, with care workers reporting a higher number of stress factors such as high demands, lack of control, job insecurity and perceived unfairness of pay.

Then we looked at workers’ mental health, using a widely recognised scale which assesses respondents’ symptoms of depression and anxiety in the past four weeks, along with more positive feelings such as calmness and happiness.

We found carers and support workers had poorer mental health scores than health workers. They also scored worse when compared to other workers who were not in health, care or other people-facing roles.

Other human service workers, such as hospitality workers, sales staff and personal assistants had worse mental health than those in roles which involved less personal contact. Of the four groups – carers, health workers, human service workers and others – carers had the worst mental health and health workers had the best.

Mental health effects

What were the biggest stress factors for the different groups? We found job insecurity had the greatest effect on all of them. But there were differences, too: In human service jobs, fairness of pay was the second-biggest factor, while in health care professions low control was associated with the second largest decline in mental health.

But we also found differences in the ways in which different groups reacted to stress: When carers and support workers reported three or more different stress factors, that resulted in a three-point decline on the mental health scale when compared to those reporting none. But when health care workers reported three or more stress factors that was associated with a lower, 2.65 point, decline in mental health.

Low-skilled is high-stress?

Our results suggest – perhaps surprisingly, given popular narratives about the stress suffered by senior executives – that lower skilled carers and support workers are more likely to be exposed to stress at work than higher skilled health workers such as doctors and nurses. They also have poorer mental health and a greater adverse reaction to stress.

There is other evidence to show low-income, less-educated workers suffer more from work stress. But our analysis adds another factor – the care workforce we looked at are mainly women with lower incomes and less education than either health workers or our reference group of other workers.

And even when this largely-female, low-status group of carers reports no stress factors at work, its mental health is worse than that of other workers – we found a three-point difference on the mental health scale between carers and either health staff or our reference category of non-health, non-people-facing staff.

Hence, people with lower levels of mental health face an accumulation of health hazards. They are likely to find themselves in stressful jobs which propel them into even worse mental health.

And so to our final question – is the poor mental health of care workers somehow intrinsic to them as people? Our methods enabled us to control for stable (time-invariant) characteristics such as gender, personality or country of birth (called within person effects), as well as things which might change over time, such as age, income and type of employment. The results showed that even after controlling for within person effects, as well as these other factors such as age and income, being exposed to these stress factors had a negative effect on the mental health of care workers.

We concluded that – while it’s important to note that health workers, too, experienced stress and poor mental health – low-quality working environments has a clear effect on the poorer outcomes of carers and support workers.

The impact of these environments does not stop with those who work in them:  this may also have knock-on effects on the quality of care provided. Earlier studieshave shown factors such as anxiety, stress and burnout  among healthcare workers are linked with poorer patient safety, too.

There is a dire need for more investigation into working conditions among health and human service workers. Such research could be critical in informing workplace design, particularly as the number of people employed as health and human service continues to grow. For that workforce to be sustainable, jobs need to be structured to promote health and productivity as well as a high quality of care.

The mental health impacts of health and human service work: Longitudinal evidence about differential exposure and susceptibility using 16 waves of cohort data, by Allison Milner, Tania L. King and Anne Kavanagh, was published in Preventive Medicine Reports, vol 14, June 2019.

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