The relationship between work characteristics, wellbeing, depression and workplace bullying

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This report was produced by Peter Butterworth, Liana S. Leach and Kim M. Kiely of the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing, The Australian National University under commission from Safe Work Australia.


The information provided in this document can only assist you in the most general way. This document does not replace any statutory requirements under any relevant state and territory legislation. Safe Work Australia is not liable for any loss resulting from any action taken or reliance made by you on the information or material contained on this document. Before relying on the material, users should carefully make their own assessment as to its accuracy, currency, completeness and relevance for their purposes, and should obtain any appropriate professional advice relevant to their particular circumstances. The views in this report should not be taken to represent the views of Safe Work Australia unless otherwise expressly stated.

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With the exception of the Safe Work Australia logo, this report is licensed by Safe Work Australia under a Creative Commons 3.0 Australia Licence. To view a copy of this licence, visit

In essence, you are free to copy, communicate and adapt the work, as long as you attribute the work to Safe Work Australia and abide by the other licensing terms.

Suggested citation

Butterworth P, Leach LS & Kiely KM (2013). The relationship between work characteristics, wellbeing, depression and workplace bullying: technical findings from a survey of 32–36 year old workers in Canberra and Queanbeyan, 2013. Canberra: Safe Work Australia.

Enquiries regarding the licence and any use of the report are welcome at:

Copyright Officer

Safe Work Australia

GPO Box 641 Canberra ACT 2601


ISBN 978-1-74361-110-4 [PDF]

ISBN 978-1-74361-111-1 [DOCX]

Table of Contents

Table of Contents 3

Executive summary 4

1. Introduction 6

2. Methods 9

1.2.1 Sample and data collection 9 Face-to-face sample 9 Online survey 10

4.2.2 Questionnaire development – constructs, items and measures 10 Career interruptions and expectations regarding return to work 10 Work-related injury 11 Additional aspects of psychosocial characteristics of work 12 Sick leave and days-out-of-role 15 Workplace bullying 16 Perceived benefits of work 21 Existing measures 21

3. Results: Response rates and interview completion 25

12.3.1 Face-to-face sample 25

13.3.2 Online survey 25

14.3.3 Interpretation 25

4. Results: Description of the PATH wave 4 sample 27

15.4.1 Social-demographic characteristics 27 What does the PATH sample look like? 27 Comparison of face-to-face and online-only samples 28 Who isn’t participating in the workforce? 28

19.4.2 The profile of workers from the PATH survey 29

5. Results: Analysis of PATH wave 4 data 32

20.5.1 Preliminary 32

21.5.2 Work-related injury 32

22.5.3 Career interruptions and return to work plans 35

23.5.4 Sick leave 35

24.5.5 Additional aspects of the psychosocial characteristics of work 38

25.5.6 Perceived benefits of work 43

6. Results: A case study of workplace bullying 47

26.6.1 The prevalence of workplace bullying 47

27.6.2 Dimensions of workplace bullying 47 Correlates of bullying 54 Personality and vulnerability 55 Depression and bullying 58 Workplace bullying conclusions 61

7. Conclusion, implications and future opportunities 62

References 64

Appendix A: The PATH Project 69

32.Research into work and health using the PATH study 71

Appendix B: Statistical techniques and output referred to in this report 73

33.Describing the data 73

34.Comparing scores 73

35.Reducing the data and revealing underlying structure 74

36.Predicting outcomes 74

Lists 77

37.Figures 77

38.Tables 78

39.Information boxes 78

Executive summary

The Work Wellbeing Project 2011/12 was a partnership between Safe Work Australia and The Australian National University to collect the latest wave of data from a cohort participating in the Personality and Total Health (PATH) Through Life Project. Since its inception in 1999, the PATH study has been used to investigate the intersection between work and health. The Work Wellbeing Project collected wave 4 data from 1286 respondents aged 32–36 years through an online survey, and a face-to-face interview with a subsample of 546 respondents. In addition to the topics previously covered in the PATH survey, the wave 4 questionnaire included new items focusing on salient work characteristics and experiences such as workplace bullying, attitudes to work, work-related injury, career interruption and planned return to work, the psychosocial work environment, and sick leave/days out of role. This report has a strong empirical focus and presents an overview of the new data items including analysis of how these employment characteristics are associated with depression.

Highlights from the report include:

• Work-related injury: Around 7% of survey respondents reported that they had experienced a work-related injury or illness in the past 12 months. In comparison the most recent workplace injury and illness data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show an overall injury rate of about 4% for the age-range comparable to the PATH 20+ cohort. While the profile of injuries among PATH respondents differed from the national profile, likely reflecting the greater white collar/professional background of those in the sample, the data provides a unique opportunity to examine the prospective determinants of work-related injury. For example analysis showed that psychological characteristics measured four years earlier successfully identified respondents at increased risk of later work-related injury. Respondents who scored high on the trait of impulsivity were at increased risk of later overall and joint/muscle injury, whereas those who scored high on a measure of rumination (a coping style involving a focus on the symptoms of distress and on the causes and consequences of distress) were at increased risk of subsequent stress/mental health injury.

• Sick leave: 27% of the sample reported that they had stayed away from work for more than half a day in the last four weeks because of an injury or illness. In addition, 14% of those who reported taking sick leave had taken some period of leave without pay. The analysis showed that respondents with significant depression symptoms had double the risk of taking time off work than those without depression symptoms. Importantly, the analysis showed that depression was even more strongly associated with unpaid sick leave than with paid sick leave. This may reflect that those with depression are more likely to work in jobs with fewer leave entitlements or that the effect of having a chronic medical disorder leads respondents to exhaust their leave reserves. Nonetheless, the results do point to another key indicator of the social and economic consequences of depression and mental illnesses.

• Support from colleagues and managers: Receiving adequate support from colleagues and managers/supervisors in the workplace has been shown to help buffer the adverse effects of a stressful job. Consistent with this, our analysis of the wave 4 PATH data showed that respondents who reported low levels of support from colleagues and from their managers reported over double the rate of significant depression symptoms than those who reported higher levels of support.

• Perceived benefits of work: Analysis identified four broad categories of benefits that people report they derive through work: working for self-improvement, working to meet material needs, working for personal fulfilment, and working to achieve economic independence. Consideration of these factors may help to understand the different workforce experiences and goals of different groups in society. For example, those in professional occupations were more likely to nominate work for self-improvement whereas those in trade or manual occupations were more likely to report work for economic independence. Understanding the motivations people have about work may be important in helping to better understand their responses to workplace stressors. For example, while insecure employment has been shown to be associated with increased risk of adverse health including increased risk of depression, the current analysis showed that this effect may be restricted to those who report that they are working to meet their material needs. Respondents who reported that meeting material needs was not a strong reason for working showed little difference in depression whether they had secure or insecure employment. For those who strongly advocated working to meet material needs, the perception of insecure employment was associated with greater odds of depression compared to those in more secure employment.

• Workplace bullying: The report included a focus on workplace bullying. Overall, just over 5% of respondents reported that they were currently experiencing bullying in their workplace, and a further 16% reported that they had previously been bullied in their current workplace. 24% of respondents reported experiencing bullying in a previous workplace. The analysis identified three different types of workplace bullying: person-related bullying (spreading gossip and rumours, persistent attempts to humiliate you), work-related bullying (unreasonable pressure to produce work, withholding necessary information, setting impossible deadlines), and violence and intimidation (verbal threats, threats of physical violence). Workplace bullying was strongly associated with increased risk of significant depression symptoms (over 40% among those currently bullied versus 14% among those who report never being bullied). Workplace bullying was also associated with doubling the risk of suicidal ideation. Workplace bullying can be considered as part of a cycle of vulnerability. Using longitudinal data from the PATH study we showed that compared to those respondents without depression those respondents identified with significant depression symptoms at the baseline interview had almost double the risk of reporting experiencing workplace bullying 12 years later.

The early findings from this study point to a prevalent and complex set of adverse outcomes related to psychosocial work characteristics. Further analysis of the new Work Wellbeing data and existing PATH data, as well as further research, is needed to improve our understanding of the complex relationships involved. One practical implication from the findings to date is that fair reward for effort and support from colleagues and managers may prove to be essential requirements for preventing the occurrence and consequences of bullying and depression in the workplace.

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