The relationship between work stress and depression differs across cultures

A study of data on the connection between work stress and depression from 100 countries showed that this association depends on certain characteristics of the national culture. While this link was stronger in cultures with pronounced power distance and individualism, it was weaker in cultures with pronounced masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation. The study was published in Cross-cultural research.

Work stress is a globally widespread cause of social and economic hardship. It can lead to depression, which in turn can lead to suicide. In the United States alone, work stress is estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars annually through accidents, absenteeism, reduced productivity, medical expenses, and employee turnover.

However, previous studies have indicated that the connection between work stress and depression depends on the psychological assessment of work events such as work stress and on the person’s assessment of their own potential to cope with such events. Both of these assessments are known to be influenced by cultural factors. Research has also shown that national culture can predict other factors related to depression such as anxiety.

To systematize differences between cultures, the researchers relied on Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural differences, which proposes a number of dimensions of cultural differences. Power distance determines what levels of inequality of power are acceptable to people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Individualism-collectivism distinguishes cultures in which a person is expected to prioritize his own wants and desires over those of the wider social group from those in which a person is expected to put group priorities ahead of his own.

On the other hand, collectivistic cultures have strong group bonds that can buffer stress, depression and suicide, which are absent in highly individualistic cultures. Masculinity-femininity refers to how much activities are divided by gender, while avoid uncertainty reflects the level to which cultures are tolerant of or feel threatened by the behavior of others that does not conform to common norms.

Finally, long- vs short-term orientation distinguishes cultures that value perseverance and thrift, the organization of social relations in accordance with the social status of a person and the sense of shame, from cultures that value social relations that are based on mutual obligations, respect for tradition, protection of personal credibility and stability. Study authors assume that all these dimensions influence the relationship between work stress and depression, each in its own way.

To test these hypotheses, study authors analyzed data from 5,918 clinical trials on mental health problems conducted between 1999 and 2020 in 100 countries. These trials included data on whether or not a person had depression and whether or not a person experienced work stress. Both variables were Yes-No coded. Researchers added values ​​of cultural dimensions to these data based on the country where the experiment was conducted.

The results showed that it was 11 times more likely that work stress led to depression than that work stress did not lead to depression. The cultural dimension of power distance increased these odds from 11 to 38, while individualism increased them from 11 to 148. Masculinity did not significantly change the odds that work stress was associated with depression.

Long-term orientation reduced it from 11 to 4.7. Uncertainty avoidance completely negated the link between work stress and depression. The researchers explain this by noting that the avoidance of uncertainty reduces life satisfaction, general life happiness and subjective well-being. By directly affecting mental health negatively, it can therefore also block the link between work stress and depression.

It should be noted that these values ​​do not indicate the prevalence of depression in these countries, but only how strong the connection between work stress and depression is, i.e. how certain we can be that people who experience work stress will also experience depression.

The study provides important insight into how cultural factors influence the relationship between depression and work stress. However, it should be noted that 40% of the sample of clinical trials used came from the USA and also that it consisted of people who were somehow involved in clinical trials related to mental health.

Results on samples that are more representative of the general population of countries in the world may not give the same results. In addition, the study design does not permit any cause-and-effect conclusions.

The study, “National Cultural Moderates the Link Between Work Stress and Depression: An Analysis of Clinical Trial Projects Across Countries,” was authored by Tariq H. Malik and Chunhui Huo.

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