Unemployed people who move into a poor-quality job exhibit more biological indicators of stress than people who remain unemployed, thus raising their risk of disease, a British study suggests.
It also found that landing a new job is associated with improved mental health — but only if the job is a good one.
“Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed, and may have important implications for their health and well-being,” write the study’s authors, medical sociologists Tarani Chandola and Nan Zhang of the University of Manchester.
“Just as ‘good work is good for health,’ we must also remember poor quality work can be detrimental for health,” they add.
For the study, which was published earlier this month in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Chandola and Zhang monitored 1,116 British adults, aged 35 to 75, who were participating in the UK Household Longitudinal Study. All were unemployed in 2009-2010. At that time, the participants underwent a health assessment, during which various physiological measures were taken to create something called an allostatic load index for each of them. Allostatic load is used to determine the accumulative health impact that chronic stress has on the body. These measures include such things as blood pressure, pulse, waist-to-height ratio, cholesterol and C-creative protein levels (an indicator of inflammation) — all of which are considered markers for an increased risk of certain chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. The participants also completed a mental health assessment.
Two to three years later — after many of the participants were re-employed — the health assessment was repeated. This time it also included five questions that enabled the researchers to rate the quality of each new job. Participants were asked how anxious their job made them, how satisfied they were with it, how much autonomy and security it gave them, and how much it paid.
They also completed another mental health assessment.
An analysis of all that data revealed that, on average, people who transitioned into poor-quality jobs had higher levels of overall allostatic load than those who stayed unemployed. Those in better jobs, on the other hand, had lower levels.
Getting a good-quality job was also associated with improvement in mental health scores. That was not true of the poor-quality jobs, however.
Limitations and implications
Chandala and Zhang say their findings can’t be explained by the participants’ health status because those in good health were more likely to get both good- and poor-quality jobs. But the study has some other limitations. Most notably, it’s an observational study, which means it can’t prove a causal relationship. In addition, having biological markers for disease is not the same as actually having disease.
Furthermore, the study involved only adults living in Great Britain, which has a more generous social safety net than here in the United States. (Unemployed people are not at risk of losing their government health insurance, for example.) The results may not be applicable, therefore, to American workers.
Still, the study supports the findings of a 2015 meta-analysis, which reported that job insecurity has as much of a negative an effect on health — including mental health — as unemployment.
In other words, having any job may not necessarily be better — at least, in terms of our health — than having no job.
FMI: You’ll find the study on the International Journal of Epidemiology website.