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Highly Educated Workers More Stressed

Poorer Mental Health, Job Stress Linked to Higher Education

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April 18, 2003 -- The more you know, the more your mental health suffers? That's the surprising conclusion of a study that looked at the mental health of highly educated workers in Northern California. Researchers found that workers with advanced degrees were more stressed and had poorer mental health compared with national norms.

The study was intended to examine what factors contribute to poor mental health among employees at a single workplace. But the most startling finding was that these highly educated workers scored much lower, on average, on tests of overall mental health. In fact, these workers scores in the bottom third compared with the rest of the nation.

Researchers say it's the first study to look at mental health status among a predominantly highly educated workforce. Their findings appear in the March/April issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

"Highly educated workers constitute a large and growing sector of the U.S. workforce," write researcher Cheryl Koopman, PhD, of Stanford University and colleagues. They say about nearly 11 million workers in the U.S. have an advanced degree, and another 22 million have a bachelor's degree.

"Given the size and economic importance of this workforce, it is vital to have a good understanding of the mental health status of this employee population," they write.

Researchers surveyed a group 460 employees of one Northern California workplace, and 51% of those surveyed had a master's or doctoral degree. The participants answered questions about their mental health status as well as their satisfaction with home and job life, antidepressant use, drinking habits, and how they coped with problems and job stress.

People with the lowest mental health scores were more likely to be young, report higher levels of home or job stress, engage in harmful drinking habits, use antidepressants, and have poor coping skills.

"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 in facing life stressors given their relative lack of experience," the researchers write.

Alternatively, researchers say younger people may face particular sources of stress that are more difficult to cope with, such as choosing a career.

Researchers say they were surprised to find that advanced degrees were associated with better mental health in women but not in men. They say the advantages that higher education offers women may offset other life stressors, or women who obtain advanced degrees are more mentally healthy to begin with.

The researchers say more research is needed to see if these findings apply to other workplaces and to help design on-the-job treatment and intervention programs to foster better mental health among highly educated workers.

SOURCE: American Journal of Health Promotion, March/April 2003.

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