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Mental health: what we can learn from a 100-year-old study

Mental health: what we can learn from a 100-year-old study

Bonds between employees are vital for managing stress and combating isolation


In the early 20th century, as mass production and mechanisation were transforming work in the Western world, the German-American industrial psychologist, Hugo Münsterberg, toured factories trying to find employees with the most tiresome jobs possible. He wanted to gain a better understanding of how working practices affected psychological well-being.

In his 1913 book, Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, Münsterberg explained that during a visit to an electrical factory, he met a woman who packed light bulbs into boxes, wrapping 13,000 bulbs in tissue paper each day. She had done this day-in, day-out for 12 years.

Thinking he had found the perfect case study – for surely her work must make her miserable – Münsterberg quizzed the employee about the psychological effects of her job.

But he was shocked when the employee “assured me that she found the work really interesting… she told me that there is continuous variation.

“Sometimes she grasps the lamp or paper in a different way, sometimes the packing itself does not run smoothly, sometimes she feels fresher, sometimes less in the mood for the work, and there is always something to observe and something to think about.”

Prospect would obviously discourage the monotonous practices that the light bulb packer was subjected to. But in mental health awareness week, Münsterberg’s research provides useful insights that can be used in the battle against workplace stress. 

Social groups

Having visited factories where owners with “modern philanthropic ideas” gave workers access to social facilities, Münsterberg noted that social groups might have an important role in people’s subjective appreciation of their work.

“All the social movements which enhance the consciousness of solidarity among the labourers and the feeling of security as to their future development in their career have [the] effect of reinforcing the normal psychical achievement,” he wrote.

In the intervening century, our understanding of mental health has improved, but a large number of people are still in distress because of their work.

We know that one in six employees has a mental health condition at any one time.

We know that women – and young women in particular – are significantly more likely to have a condition.

And we know – especially in the work environment – what factors can cause people psychological harm.

What we are starting to better understand is the role that social support and identity play in our health.


Management standards

Meta-analyses have shown that social support and social integration are the two most important factors for health and mortality – more so than quitting smoking, exercising or watching your weight. 

Peer support is one of the six elements that make up the Health and Safety Executive’s management standards – the most widely accepted model for how employers should manage the issues that cause stress.

The other five elements are workload, autonomy, bullying, clarity of role and change management.

Stress has direct and indirect effects on our health. Research has shown, for instance, that a perceived lack of workplace fairness is a risk factor for employees developing depression.

Stress has been linked to high blood pressure, which in turn is linked to potentially life-threatening conditions.

Stress can also cause people to adopt unhealthy choices and behaviours, such as alcohol abuse, smoking and drug taking.

As well as being a workplace health issue, stress is a pressing public health issue.


Management practices

In 2016, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a leading business theorist and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University, co-authored a study which found that harmful management practices led to 120,000 extra deaths each year in the US.

That’s a staggering one in 25 deaths that are due to factors including shift work, long hours, high workload and low organisational fairness.

As the research into how everyday social factors affect our health shows, placing greater emphasis on the bonds between employees is a vital element for managing stress and combating damaging isolation.

Employers have a role to play in encouraging this peer support. But it also underlines why trade unions are vital in tackling stress and mental ill health in the workplace.

Strong and active unions can provide people with networks of support and shared resources.

Münsterberg ultimately wanted to see the eradication of “mental dissatisfaction in work, mental depression and discouragement”.

One hundred years on, there is still work to do to achieve his vision.

Chris Warburton

Chris Warburton


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