Occupational Mental Health Risk Factors and the Nature of Work

Sep 28, 2021


“ZOOM” was fourth on Google’s global list of the most searched terms in 2020.[1]  Perhaps that’s no surprise, for the Covid-19 pandemic and affordable technology transformed our lives at work and at home.  Both context and personality contribute to many of our mental health challenges, including burnout—one of the major problems throughout the pandemic. 

So how do changing technical, social, economic, and legal contexts combine to shape what philosopher Alain de Botton described as the ‘pleasures and sorrows of work’? [2]   We need to appreciate the nature of work itself.

Risk Factors at Work

 A significant review of 37 studies, published in 2017 by University of NSW Professor Samuel Harvey and colleagues in Sydney and Norway identified 12 work-related mental health risk factors.[3]  In ‘the first comprehensive meta-review of the evidence linking work to the development of common mental health problems’, [4] Harvey and co. organised these factors into three overlapping themes—occupational uncertainty, imbalanced job design, and a lack of value and respect in the workplace.

Generations of human resources (HR) professionals would roll their eyes and sigh in agreement; they ‘work the problems’ every day.[5]  The risk factors summarised in Figure 1 were all heightened by the pandemic.  This framework helps us to be curious, reflect upon the mental health risks in our jobs, and consider how those risk factors are changing.

Figure 1: Work-related Health Risk Factors (adapted from Harvey, et al. 2017)

Occupational Uncertainty Imbalanced Job Design Lack of Value and Respect in the workplace
Procedural Justice Procedural Justice Procedural Justice
Temporary Employment status —– Temporary Employment status
Job Control Job Control —-
—- Effort-Reward Imbalance Effort-Reward Imbalance
—- Occupational Social Support Occupational Social Support
Job Insecurity Atypical Working Hours Relational Justice
Role Stress Job Demands Workplace Conflict/Bullying
Organizational Change —- —-


Light and Shade

 Working from home, furlough and layoffs have really tested our mental reserves.  The tiny acts of kindness from our colleagues, quiet words of encouragement, forgiveness for our meltdowns, and other simple mercies will be long-remembered; as will the workplace tyrants with little regard for procedural justice or compassion.

Certain jobs embody more of the mental health risk factors than others.  While restaurant and supermarket home deliveries kept many people fed in lockdown, the pandemic highlighted the limited career options, and lack of job control or safe conditions for numerous gig economy and contingent workers.  On the frontline, healthcare professionals have worked exhausting hours of peak stress.  They have faced a dynamic and hazardous medical environment of hazardous roles; at times with a lack of information, resources, organisational support, or even the capacity to access social support.[6]

Dealmakers, entertainers, and educators were all flattened by the loss of personal connection.  Professionals and white-collar workers quickly retreated to the home office, where ‘working hours’ pushed even further into our private time.  The nuances of office life and business development over coffee weren’t easily reproduced via Zoom or collaboration software.

Few artists made a viable living from Twitch or YouTube in place of live gigs.  The wage-effort bargain tilted heavily against weary teachers too.  Online teaching was a steep learning curve for educators realising their job now demanded digital content production and being entertaining.

Driven by technology and accelerated by the pandemic, the reshaping of work offers potential bright and dark sides.  Shared values light the way to a strong culture at many companies, including tech giants Atlassian and Google,[7] where psychological safety founded in a clear organisational purpose, personal vulnerability, and a deep sense of belonging are powerful motivators.  The dark side is the realm of the precariat—a global talent pool of fungible workers, competing in an electronic sweat shop of insecure work, low wages, and exploitation.[8]

Situational and Self-Awareness

If improved mental health requires a change of role or employer, which psychological risk factors do we most need to keep in mind?  Sometimes all we need is a simple organising model like Harvey’s work-related risk factors to help collect our thoughts and the appropriate professional assistance to clearly think through an issue.[9]  Knowing our tolerance for uncertainty and the strength of our desire for control, justice and respect at work will help us find the right jobs for our temperament.

An experienced mental health clinician or Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider can help us give form to our implicit understanding and the complex emotions surrounding ‘what we do’.  And don’t forget the flipside—our sources of job satisfaction.[10]  A more vivid impression of how context and personality shape our mental health comes from seeing both the light and shade in our job and workplace dynamics.

Managers can deploy the risk factors framework in quite practical ways, especially when conducting an occupational health and safety risk assessment.  A deeper appreciation of work-related mental health risk factors will also enhance recruitment and performance evaluation.

Seek Understanding With ACT Curious

Experience is our point of difference.  At ACT Curious, we have helped clients deal with critical incidents in the workplace since 2007.  We hire for proven expertise and experience in trauma, and 95% of our ACT Curious clinicians have led organisations and managed people.

Change is the only constant in life, so the best strategy in an uncertain world is to be psychologically flexible.  Contact ACT Curious today to discuss how we can help you cope with the challenges of technological and organisational change.  When working with you as an individual client or your EAP provider, our experienced clinicians at ACT Curious will help you identify the mental health risks factors of your job.  We will help you to do the work needed to clarify your personal and shared values, so you can adapt and thrive by moving forward in your valued direction.



Robert D. Macdonald is a consultant, writer, and researcher with two decades of undergraduate and postgraduate workplace relations and governance teaching experience and the University of Melbourne, Griffith University and Victoria University.  Michelle Trudgen is the Clinical Director of ACT Curious.



📞   0438 922 979 (Australia Wide)

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The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


© ACT Curious Pty Ltd, 2021.

[1] Year in Search 2020, Google Trends: Global (accessed 6 September 2021).

[2] For a thoughtful and highly-readable perspective, see Alain de Botton (2010). The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, London: Penguin.

[3] Samuel B Harvey, Matthew Modini, Sadhbh Joyce, et al. (2017). Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 74(4), 301–310.

[4] A meta-review is a literature review of other literature reviews.  It is a common way of identifying wider trends in a field of research.

[5] For the human resource management perspective on the same or similar issues, see, e.g., Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2016). How Good is Your Job? Measuring and Assessing Job Quality, Paris: OECD, and the classic by J Richard Hackman & Greg R Oldham (1980). Work Redesign, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, esp. Ch 4: ‘Motivation through the design of work’ (pp.71–98).

[6] As an introduction to the large stream of research from the Australian COVID-19 Frontline Health Workers Study, see Natasha Smallwood & Karen Willis (2021). Mental health among healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Respirology, 2021, 1–2; Karen Willis & Natasha Smallwood (2021, Sept 6). ‘Living with COVID’ looks very different for front-line health workers, who are already exhausted. The Conversation.

Personal reflections vividly highlight the workplace mental health risk factors; see, e.g. Michelle Ananda-Rajah, Benjamin Veness & Danielle Berkovic, et al. (2021). Hearing the voices of Australian healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMJ Leader, 2021, 5, 31–35.

[7] See, e.g., A Human Agency (2016). Case Study. Atlassian: Success Through Organisational Values, Centre for Workplace Leadership, The University of Melbourne; Daniel Coyle (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, New York: Bantam Books.

[8] Especially see Guy Standing (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic: London.

[9] Appropriate support includes using validated diagnostic tools for assessing mental health conditions, developing immediate coping strategies, and ongoing clinical supervision as required.  As a starting points for healthcare and other frontline workers in particular, see Australian Psychological Society (2020). Frontline Workers and COVID-19: Tips for Coping and Enhancing Resilience During the Pandemic; and Sonja Cabarkapa, Joel A King & Chee H Ng (2020). The psychiatric impact of COVID-19 on healthcare workers. Australian Journal of General Practice, 49(12), 791–795.

[10] For a contemporary overview, see Timothy A Judge, Shuxia (Carrie) Zhang & David R Glerum (2020). ‘Job Satisfaction’ in Valerie I Sessa & Nathan A Bowling (eds). Essentials of Job Attitudes and Other Workplace Psychological Constructs (pp.207–241), London: Routledge.


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