Unfairness at work – source of professional depression

Contrary to popular belief, burnout is not caused by an overload of work. According to a Danish study, what must be looked for is more related to managers and the injustices that they may commit


For years, depression related to the professional sphere has been blamed on excessive work that employees were no longer able to cope with. This is a misdiagnosis, according to a medical report titled A two-year follow-up study of salivary cortisol concentration and the risk of depression.

This medical study, undertaken by a team of twelve researchers of the Clinical Medicine Department of Aarhus University in Denmark, indeed demonstrates that it is more likely injustices felt by people in their workplace and the way they are treated by their boss that leads them to depression.


PhD psychologist Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup, who participated in preparing this study, confirmed that the results obtained clearly show the lack of correlation between work overload and depression of an employee. Associating depression and stress with pressure and an overload of work is therefore not necessarily relevant.

The study was conducted from answers provided by 4,500 people working in organizations in the Danish public sector, such as hospitals, schools and nurseries. Respondents were interviewed in 2007 based on a questionnaire which determined whether they thought they were treated fairly in the professional sphere. Specifically, the questions related to their feeling of being listened to or not by their immediate superior, being understood, being treated in the same way as their colleagues, etc.


Novel results


Two years later, 72% of the people who were interviewed in 2007 participated in the second part of the study. Employees who had shown symptoms of depression, burnout or high stress during the first phase were interviewed again.

The results of the Danish study end up contradicting all the prior work conducted on workplace depression. The conclusions of previous reports associated a depressive condition among employees with excessive workload, emphasizing a high concentration of cortisol, the stress hormone, among participants.

The Danish researchers therefore collected the saliva of respondents to analyze their cortisol levels. Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup explains that the conclusions showed that a high level of cortisol in the saliva was not the factor in development of depression with the subject. On the contrary, it was low for all those presenting all the symptoms of depression.

According to the Danish researchers it is the professional environment and the interpersonal workplace relations that are the real cause of the depressive conditions observed. Although the amount of work seemed insurmountable among the depressive persons, in no case was it the cause of their condition. The feeling of unfairness is indeed a determining factor for depression among employees; prevention work must therefore be done by employers and managers.


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