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Women's Health

Highly Educated Workers May Be At Greater Risk For Poor Mental Health

Highly educated workers seem to be at greater risk for poor mental health than the general U.S. population, according to the results of a new study.

While other studies have examined workplace settings and mental health status, this is the first to focus on a workforce that is predominately highly educated, said Cheryl Koopman, Ph.D., lead author of the project, which was supported by a grant from the Center for Substance Prevention.

The finding that highly educated workers reported poor mental health, when compared to national norms, came as a surprise to the research team, noted Koopman., who is on staff at Stanford University.

“We intended merely to identify characteristics of the employees who had worse mental health,” the team said.

However, they found that study participants with advanced education received low scores on a mental health index, compared with the rest of the nation.

“Highly educated workers constitute a large and growing sector of the U.S. workforce,” said Koopman. “It is vital to have a good understanding of the mental health status of this population.”

A prior study by independent researchers demonstrated that highly educated workers experienced greater stress when faced with potential layoffs than their less-educated counterparts, according to the study team.

Data from 460 people who responded to a survey mailed to approximately 8,500 randomly selected employees at a Northern California worksite was used in the new study; 51 percent of the participants had either a master’s or doctoral degree.

The researchers sought information about the respondents’ perceived satisfaction with home and work life; whether they were taking antidepressant medications or had a current drinking problem; how they coped with problems in their lives; whether they had recently experienced stressful events; and how frequently they visited healthcare professionals.

Those with the lowest scores in overall mental health were more likely to be young; reported higher levels of work or home stress; engaged in harmful drinking; used antidepressants; or had poor coping skills for their sources of stress, the study determined.

“Perhaps older employees benefit from having a sense of confidence that they can face ongoing life stressors that are often similar to others with which they have successfully coped previously, whereas younger persons are less confident given their relative lack of experience,” the study team reported.

The team noticed a “surprising” gender difference in their findings: women with advanced degrees scored higher on overall mental health than men with similar degrees. This finding stands in contrast to data showing that women are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, such as depression, the researchers said.

“Most of the factors associated with mental health are modifiable and could be addressed by worksite treatment and prevention programs,” Koopman said.

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