Writing in the July Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), the study's lead author Michael F. Hilton, Ph.D., of The University of Queensland, Australia, based the study on a survey of more than 60,500 full-time employees of 58 Australian companies.
Workers anonymously completed the "Kessler 6" questionnaire, which asked how often they felt sad, nervous, hopeless, etc. Scores of 13 or higher (on a 24-point scale) indicated high psychological distress, with a high likelihood of a mental disorder.
Overall, 4.5 percent of the employees had high psychological distress. Another 9.6 percent had moderate psychological distress (score of 8 to 12), indicating a "possible" mental disorder.
Just 22 percent of workers with high psychological distress were currently receiving treatment for a mental health condition. Another 29 percent said they had a mental disorder but had never sought treatment, while 31 percent denied having any problem.
Workers in sales positions were at greatest risk of high psychological distress: 5.6 percent of men and 7.5 percent of women.
Workers expected to work long hours (60 or more per week) also had high rates of psychological distress.
Another risk factor was working in "non-traditional gender roles"-for example, women who worked as equipment operators or laborers and for men who worked in clerical or administrative jobs. Marital separation and low education were also linked to high psychological distress.
The study-using methods familiar to OH and S professionals and managers-demonstrates a high rate of psychological distress in the working population.
The risk factors identified may help in targeting groups of workers at high risk of psychological distress and mental health problems.
"Employers need to focus health resources on a common, debilitating, largely untreated illness group that substantially reduces employee productivity at work, increases absences from work, and increases employee attrition," the researchers said.