Researchers unveil new tool to measure severity of occupational depression

December 10, 2020

Researchers have introduced a new tool in response to what they described as a lack of a measure of depressive symptoms that ascribed those symptoms to a workplace source. (Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash)

Two researchers have developed a new tool to help occupational health specialists identify individuals at risk for high levels of depression that can be attributed directly to their workplace, in what the pair said is the first such instrument of its kind to address and quantify work-related depression.

The Occupational Depression Inventory, or ODI, was introduced by City College of New York professor Irvin Sam Schonfeld and the University of Neuchâtel’s Renzo Bianchi in a study published in the November issue of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

Schonfeld said that the development of the ODI resulted from skepticism the duo had regarding work-related burnout, arguing that the exhaustion component of burnout is in actuality a symptom of depression. He noted that while there are many variances of burnout scales available, such as the Maslach Burnout Inventory and the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, the common factor in these tools is that they measure exhaustion.

“Emotional exhaustion is the core of burnout, and it’s very highly related to depressive symptoms, as measured by commonly used depressive symptom scales,” Schonfeld said. “We don’t feel like there’s this real syndrome called burnout; we tend to think what people are calling burnout is on the continuum of depression.”

Schonfeld said that he and Bianchi created the ODI in response to a lack of any sort of measure of depressive symptoms that ascribed those symptoms to a workplace source. Depressive symptom scales tend to be “cause-neutral,” do not specifically reference a condition in an individual’s life that would give rise to such symptoms and instead measure the frequency of the symptoms themselves. The ODI accordingly explicitly references work, Schonfeld said, which differentiates it from other depression scales.

The ODI measures nine symptom items, including depressed moods, sleep and appetite changes and fatigue, and also features a question regarding the individual’s potential desire to leave their job, which the researchers defined as “turnover intention,” as a result of any problems encountered.

“We tried to keep it short, and we wanted to keep it practical,” Schonfeld said. “We think what we’re creating is an instrument that occupational health specialists could use if they want to find out if somebody is suffering as a result of their working conditions.”

In developing the ODI, the researchers studied 2,254 individuals in the United States, France and New Zealand, most of whom were school teachers. The U.S. sample comprised individuals from a variety of occupations recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The survey generally targeted teachers due to the degree of variability in their working conditions and stress despite having the same general job. Schonfeld noted that a teacher’s job can range from “extremely stressful to very good” depending on the kind of school environment in which they work.

Of the individuals surveyed, 7.6% met the ODI’s criteria for a provisional diagnosis of work-ascribed depression. Job-related depression symptoms were correlated with other variables, such as overall job satisfaction, and individuals who described having such symptoms also indicated turnover intention.

The next step for the ODI will be to have it translated into other languages, Schonfeld said, as it is currently available only in English and in French. Schonfeld added that he and Bianchi are close to completing work on another article that delves into the relationship between the ODI and the Maslach and Copenhagen burnout scales.

Schonfeld also stressed that the ODI is a tool being made available at no cost, saying that publishing it for free was “the right thing to do.”

“This is an instrument that occupational health specialists can use to help identify, quickly, individuals who are at risk for developing high levels of depressive symptoms or even depressive disorders that can be attributed to their job,” he said. 

The study, titled “The Occupational Depression Inventory: A new tool for clinicians and epidemiologists,” was published in the November issue of Journal of Psychosomatic Research and authored by Renzo Bianchi, University of Neuchâtel, and Irvin Sam Schonfeld, The City College of the City University of New York. 

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