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Approved Research

Characterising neural network markers of occupational wellbeing

Principal Investigator: Dr Charlotte Rae
Approved Research ID: 62188
Approval date: September 29th 2020

Lay summary

Our employment status and what we do for a living can have numerous impacts on our wellbeing and mental health, from under- or over-employment, to shift work, and time spent commuting instead of with our families and relaxing. However, the brain mechanisms by which such occupational factors influence our wellbeing, and make us vulnerable to experiencing poor mental health, are less well understood. This means that we do not fully understand why some people become stressed or unwell as a result of occupational issues, while others remain unaffected.

This project aims to find out what aspects of brain function are associated with various occupational measures, such as employment status, hours worked, shift work, and commuting. The UK Biobank database contains information on these occupational measures, as well as participants' wellbeing and mental health, and MRI brain scans. This project will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures of brain activity, recorded while participants undertook an emotional face perception task, and also while they rested quietly during brain scanning. The research team will analyse the data to look for patterns of brain activity that are more common in people with certain types of employment status, working long hours, or doing shift work. This will tell us whether various patterns of working tend to be associated with certain patterns of brain activity.

Then, statistical tests will be conducted to see if these patterns of brain activity are a likely causal factor in the impact that people's employment has on their wellbeing and mental health. This will help us identify which sub-groups of people are likely to be neurologically vulnerable to work-related wellbeing and mental health problems.

These results will be of interest to employers who want to keep their workforce healthy and productive; to employees who want to consider making requests to their employer for better wellbeing (such as reduced hours); and to policymakers who want to support optimum economic and public health.

The project is being conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Sussex, including Principal Investigator Dr Charlotte Rae and PhD student Raul Ungureanu. The project will form part of Raul's PhD thesis on the neural mechanisms of wellbeing in the workplace. As a result, the project duration (36 months) matches the duration of Raul's PhD at Sussex, so we expect to be able to share the project's results in approximately 2023.