It’s not the workload that’s making people hate their jobs—it’s the boss

Work can be a stressful place.
Work can be a stressful place.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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Overwork is one of the most common complaints of the modern professional. But it’s less likely to be a cause of workplace depression than being treated unfairly in the office is, according to new Danish research.

“Our study shows that the workload actually has no effect on workplace depression,” Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup, PhD, a psychologist at Aarhus University and one of the researchers behind the study, told

It’s actually the other way around: depression can make the workload seem overwhelming and unconquerable. Through surveying and interviewing almost 3,000 public employees in Denmark, the researchers found that, rather than high stress causing depression, participants with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol were at higher risk of depression.

“Depression can make work assignments appear insurmountable, even though the depression was not caused by the workload,” said Grynderup.

Depression in the workplace is a problem worth tackling: 200 million workdays are lost each year due to depression in the US, costing American employers an annual loss of up to $44 billion, according to the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Employers are starting to take action; earlier this month, a bevy of business bosses in Europe—including top executives from Barclays, Unilever and Royal Mail—launched a project to tackle depression in the workplace.

The bad news is that getting on top of your workload or passing a burdensome assignment to a colleague won’t necessarily alleviate unhappy feelings.

But the good news is that the key to a happy workforce is a fair environment, where employees feel that they are being treated justly and respectfully. That’s something within the control of managers.

”When the employees’ sense of justice plays such a central role in minimizing the risk of depression, this is probably the area that the preventive work should focus on,” Grynderup told “I recommend a management style in which there is a clearly expressed wish to treat employees properly—combined with a transparent organizational structure.”

That suggests one strategy for employers: keep piling on the work, just do it in a respectful way.