Study looks at secretaries' depression


April 26, 1994|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Medical Tribune News Service

Tomorrow is Secretaries' Day. Across the country, men and women will make a particular effort to thank the people who make up their support staffs. But while secretaries are being thanked, let's also take a minute to look at their attitudes toward their work and the impact it may have on their total sense of well-being.

Several years ago, William Eaton, Ph.D., professor of mental hygiene at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, published a study on the prevalence of depression in different occupations. That study covered about 3,000 women in approximately 100 different occupations. Secretaries emerged as one of the top professions in which people reported being depressed. Intrigued by this data, Dr. Eaton went on to explore secretaries' feelings about their work more closely.

Q: How many secretaries are there in this country?

A: The Handbook of Labor Statistics recorded more than 4 million secretaries in the United States in 1988. Ninety-eight to 99 percent of them are women. Secretaries make up almost 3.5 percent of the total civilian labor force ages 16 and over. These statistics, and the changing nature of clerical work with the introduction of word processors and personal computers, have stimulated an interest in the health and mental health implications of secretarial work.

Q: What guidelines did they use to determine depression?

A: The occurrence of depression was measured via the Diagnostic Interview Schedule (DIS). Determining that a secretary was depressed required a respondent to report an episode of two or more weeks of sadness, accompanied by symptoms in four or more of the following groups: appetite; sleep or fatigue; slowing of bodily movements or of thought; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; loss of pleasure in something usually enjoyed; difficulty concentrating; and suicidal thoughts or desires.

Q: What did a closer look show?

A: As the researchers delved more deeply into these women's feelings about their work, they found other trends that pertained to secretarial work. First, secretaries were found to be significantly more likely to report missing work in the last three months. They also were more likely to use mental health services than other women employed full time. More than 55 percent reported having missed work in the three months prior to the survey.

Measured against other women who work full time, secretaries had a higher use of anti-anxiety medication and took Valium more frequently.

Q: What do these data mean?

A: There are two ways to look at data of this kind. The depression could be linked to circumstances in each individual's life, or it could be a product of the psychological environment in which they work. For instance, secretaries have less control over their work life and work flow than bosses or administrators. The sense that they cannot control the environment may produce a sense of helplessness and depression. These are the types of factors that public health professionals will look at.

Dr. Genevieve Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is a founding director of the school's Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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