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Feeling Down? These Questions Can Help Determine If Work Is to Blame

By LIDA TUNESI

Mental health issues that stem from people’s jobs have been a growing problem for decades, say the authors of a new study. To help address this, the researchers present a new tool to assess and provisionally diagnose work-attributed depression.

Professor Irvin Schonfeld of The City College of New York and The Graduate Center, and colleague Renzo Bianchi of the Institute of Work and Organizational Psychology in Switzerland, detail this tool in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Their assessment method is called the Occupational Depression Inventory.

The new study indicates that the inventory is a reliable way of measuring work-attributed depressive symptoms. The authors hope it will help practitioners identify and treat employees, and someday help shape occupational health policy.

The inventory consists of nine questions that closely correlate to the criteria for major depression. It asks the patient to answer questions about the same issues used to diagnose depression—anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), depressed mood, sleep alterations, fatigue, appetite alterations, feelings of worthlessness, cognitive impairment, psychomotor alterations, and suicidal ideation—but only in regards to symptoms related to their jobs. Respondents give a score between zero and three for each question, and the authors provide guidelines for using scores to give a provisional diagnosis.

This is the first tool to specifically address depressive symptoms that are related to one’s job, the authors say. It’s also a step in the right direction because depressive symptoms are clearer than terms like “burnout,” which Schonfeld and Bianchi have previously explored. The use of the word “burnout” has gained popularity, but it’s still a loose term without an agreed-upon definition. Looking specifically for depressive symptoms gives professionals a starting point that is already clinically defined.

Schonfeld and Bianchi tested their tool on over 2,000 study participants, and analyzed the results to see if the inventory is valid and reliable. The tool tested well, though the authors note it would be a good idea to also try it with people from more countries and a wider variety of occupations.

And in case you’re wondering whether it makes sense to ask individuals to distinguish, on their own, whether their symptoms come from work or from other parts of their lives, the authors explain that this kind of self-reporting is common in health research, and is a trustworthy method.