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Common causes of mental health problems

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 27: Stress and mental health > Common causes of mental health problems

a worker bent over by a pile of boxes on his back labeled with problems including "new place," "injuries," "fear," and "boss yelling,"

Not everyone who has the problems described in this chapter will develop a mental health problem. A person usually is more likely to develop a mental health problem when the pressures he faces are bigger than his ability to cope (manage the problems). Sometimes, mental health problems do not have a cause that can be identified, and we do not know why someone develops them. Regardless of the reason, people who suffer from mental and emotional health problems need support and help in talking about their problems and seeking help from a health worker. Employers must be pressured to change conditions in the factory that create problems for workers.


Fear is a particular kind of stress. Fear is often created on purpose by the boss and supervisors to control workers and keep them from organizing. When management threatens workers with firings, blacklists, violence, and other kinds of retaliation, they may be breaking the law and violating workers’ human rights. Even if they do not hurt you in a visible way, they can harm your mental health. See the activity Facing fear together.

Overcoming fear
a worker whispers to another about a plan to rise up against the boss, who stands nearby holding a sharp stick.

We were very scared of what the boss and his thugs could do to us. Nobody wants to get hurt or lose their jobs. But we knew that this fear, the threat of violence, was their most powerful tool and we had to overcome it, stand together, and fight for our rights as workers, as women, and as human beings.

Economic insecurity

a woman thinking while a boss threatens to close the factory.
I don’t want the plant to close! How am I going to send money to my family? They are going to think I am a bad daughter if I lose my job!
Fear of losing your job is used by employers to get away with not fixing conditions that harm workers.

People work in factories because they need to earn money. And when income is not certain, when unemployment threatens the survival or well-being of your whole family, this can create fear and stress for the worker. Factory owners often threaten to cut back jobs or to move away, making workers fear for their jobs. Since many employers threaten to fire workers who complain, fear can keep you quiet in the face of injustice.


Our bodies need rest to be healthy and so do our minds. Working long hours and on weekends stresses our bodies and minds. Overtime also limits the time we spend with family and friends, an important part of having healthy relationships. Too many hours can make us feel isolated, lonely, and exhausted.

a tired worker at a pressing machine near a sign that says the quota has changed from 1000 to 1500.

The pressure to produce more in less time can also be harmful to workers, especially if the speed-up makes production lines move too fast to let workers complete each task well. Your body and your mind need lots of little breaks during the day to stretch, relax, and stay healthy. Some factories increase production line quotas in ways that make you feel like you cannot ever succeed. Every time you reach your production target, it gets raised again!

Work relationships

Relationships with your boss, supervisor, guards, and other workers can be stressful. Other people can make life easier or more difficult at work and outside the factory. It can be very hard to change these relationships, especially with people who have control over your job or salary.

Having a strong sense of unity with other workers can be a way of fighting for more equal relationships with the boss and union. But bosses often give workers isolated or solitary work or prohibit them from speaking or relating to their co-workers, making it hard to feel like you are all part of a community.

a man speaking.
The workplace can be very unfair. Sometimes there’s discrimination against workers, sometimes bosses favor some workers. This is especially true for women who see they are being paid less for the same work or effort that a man does for more pay. It is hard to feel like a community when workers are pushed and oppressed and made to feel like they don’t deserve better. The bosses make workers compete against each other to get more power or money. Then they offer one worker more money or a better position and try to break apart all the trust we have built. How can we overcome all this oppression and rebuild relations of solidarity?


a worker dropping dolls' heads on the floor while a supervisor shouts at her.
You’ve made a mess again, you stupid girl!

Our self-esteem and self-value come from the beliefs that we grew up with, and our relationships in our work, our community, and our families. Good self-esteem is an important part of mental and emotional health. When we see ourselves in a positive light, we are better able to manage daily problems.

For many workers who spend most of their time working and living inside the factory walls and away from family and friends, self-esteem is heavily determined by work. Facing repetitive and monotonous work, having few breaks or holidays, bosses that yell insults to hurt workers, and having no time to make friends and build relationships, can create mental health problems for workers.

Work environment

Many bad conditions in the workplace can create anxiety and stress for workers, such as too much noise, too much or not enough light, temperatures being too hot or too cold, doing repetitive work, and working with chemicals that may harm you. Also when there are not enough washroom facilities, a lack of privacy, or facilities that are always dirty, this too can have an effect on mental health. Unsanitary or overcrowded eating facilities can also create stress for workers.

Injuries in the workplace

Injuries in the workplace obviously harm the physical health of the worker. But they can also harm that worker’s mental health and the mental health of other workers who are witnesses to injuries. Experiencing injuries, either your own or seeing them happen to others, can make a worker feel undervalued, unsafe, fearful, helpless, and unable to trust the world or the people around her. Without even being aware of how much it weighs on your mind, you can be affected by trauma from an accident for many years.

Often when injuries or even death occurs in a factory there are no opportunities created for people to work through their feelings. In the worst cases, management refuses to stop production to acknowledge that a problem occurred. Entire factories of workers have suffered mental health problems after a serious accident.

Exposure to toxic chemicals can also cause mental health problems. In cases like this, it is very difficult to separate the physical health problem from the mental health problem. Physical injuries or chronic conditions can also result in mental health problems, including chronic pain, side effects from medicines, and head injuries. These problems are often made worse when workers hide injuries for fear of reprisals or losing their jobs.

Moving to a new place

Export factories attract people across long distances with the promise of jobs and income. Young women in particular often move away from their families and communities in order to find work in factories. Sometimes factories plan on drawing workers from far away and build dormitories (shared living quarters) for workers near, or even on top of, the factories. Whether or not the factory provides housing, living away from your family, community, culture, and your accustomed rhythms of life can make you feel lonely and homesick.

4 workers thinking while they make shoes on an assembly line.
I wish people would talk to me.
I miss my family and friends.
My mother died a few months ago and I can’t tell anyone.
I’ve lived here for 7 months and I only know a few people by name.


It is often difficult to be away from the people you love and who care about you. It can be hard to meet other people and make new friends, especially if you come from different places and cultures than they do, and if you are tired from working long hours.

Group living situations

a woman speaking.
The owner does not allow air conditioning in our dormitories so we want to stay longer at the factory, where it is cooler.

Conditions in many factory dormitories are often difficult. Whether in factory-provided dormitories or in shared rooms in crowded neighborhoods near factories, workers are often forced to live with people they may not know very well, with limited privacy. For people who before had only lived with their families, or come from rural areas where it was always possible to find a little space to be alone, this can be very stressful. This mental stress is often made worse when conditions are physically dangerous as well, such as through overcrowding, not enough exits, fire dangers, not enough washing or sanitary facilities, and unclean cafeterias and cooking or eating areas.

Our communities and families

When young people, especially young women, begin to work in factories, their lives and the traditional ways of their communities begin to change in ways that may be both good and bad. People begin to have a different relationship to the land and young people may "forget" how to farm.

New businesses may bring strangers, increased noise, traffic, crime, and pollution to a formerly rural area. Relationships within the family and respect for older community members may change, leading to stresses for workers as well as people who do not even work in the factories. When life changes so much that the old ways of coping do not work any more, people may begin to have mental health problems.

Other sets of changes may take place in families when suddenly the woman is working outside the home and the man may be earning less or staying closer to home and doing more of the family care. Sometimes these changes in gender roles can be good: women may gain more independence and men may learn to value the work of raising children and maintaining the family. But changes like that, especially when they are forced on people and not the result of their own choices and decisions, can also be harmful. And whether change is wanted or unwanted, change often brings added stress and pressure to family relationships.

Problems outside work

It is stressful when a family member is sick, a marriage is having difficulties, or a friend moves to a distant city. Employers make it even more stressful when they do not give workers enough time or energy to attend to problems outside the factory without fear of losing their jobs.

a man speaking while holding a child.
If I don’t go to work now, I will get fired.
But no one else can take my son to the doctor. And he is so sick!

This page was updated:06 Mar 2018