Important new research from an Australian longitudinal study has revealed that a badly paid, poorly supported, or insecure job, can be as harmful or worse for mental health than being unemployed.
Dr Peter Butterworth, from the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University (ANU), lead the research team and says the new study builds on well-established research findings from many different countries.
This includes the adverse effect that unemployment can have on mental health and the influence on mental health of the psychosocial characteristics of work, such as levels of control, demands and complexity, job insecurity, lack of supports and unfair pay.
The ANU research adds new depth to these existing findings by exploring how the quality of a job impacts on mental health outcomes and by comparing this with the effects of unemployment on mental health outcomes. “We were interested in whether it is the case that any job has benefits for mental health than being out of work,” Dr Butterworth said.
The researchers based their findings on longitudinal data from more than 7,000 people of working age, drawn from a representative national household survey conducted every year in Australia (HILDA).
Respondents were asked about their employment status and had their mental health assessed using a validated mental health inventory (MHI). They were then given a mental health score based on a description of their levels of anxiety, depression, happiness and feelings of calm in the four weeks preceding the survey.
Employed people had an average score of 75.1. Those who moved from unemployment to a good job showed an increase in their score of 3.3 points and those taking a bad job saw their score drop 5.6 points below average. Respondents that remained unemployed had a drop of only one point.
Overall, as expected, the analysis found that unemployed respondents had poorer mental health than those who were employed. But, the analysis also revealed that the mental health of workers was dependent on the psychosocial quality of the job. With those in the poorest quality jobs showing a greater decline in mental health than those who were unemployed.
The most striking finding for the team was the fact that moving from unemployment to a poor quality job offered no mental health benefit. In fact, the research showed that it was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed. “The findings run counter to a common belief that any job offers psychological benefits for individuals over the demoralising effects of unemployment,” Dr Butterworth said.
So it seems that unemployment is bad for your health, but a poor quality job can be even worse for your health and this knocks the simple notion that 'any job is better than no job' on its proverbial head.
With government's spending a lot of time and money on job creation programs that aim to reduce unemployment statistics these findings could have huge implications for improving social policy and the design of welfare programs.
"In the same way that we no longer accept workplaces that are physically unsafe or in which employees are exposed to dangerous or toxic substances, there could be a greater focus on ensuring a more positive psychosocial environment at work ... Workplace policy and job design needs to be recognized as a potentially important determinant of population health,” Dr Butterworth said.
According to the International Labor Organization the global economic crisis increased world unemployment from 178 million in 2007 to 212 million in late 2009. With world unemployment remaining at a very high 205 million in 2010, this research is very relevant to many countries currently experiencing high unemployment levels, including the US, Canada, the UK, and many EU counties.
The ANU research has been published this month in the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Journal.