Job Loss Threatens Health

Job Loss Threatens Health

Getting fired or laid off is one of life’s toughest blows, akin to losing a loved one or getting divorced, and it takes its toll on human health. But now researchers are finding that even the prospect of losing a job—whether or not it actually happens—can be shattering to your health.

In fact, the health effects of job insecurity are at least as great as the health effects of a serious or life-threatening illness.

At a time when job security has all but vanished for many workers, this is worrisome news, says Sarah Burgard, an assistant professor of epidemiology who studies the health consequences of involuntary job loss. And the problem isn’t confined to blue-collar jobs, she adds. It’s everywhere.

Burgard, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Sociology and the University of Michigan Population Studies Center as well as the School of Public Health, is involved in a trio of studies examining the impact that job loss and perceived job insecurity have on health. Her work is among the first in the United States to focus not just on the manufacturing sector but on workers from across the entire labor force.

In one study, Burgard found that people experienced a significant decline in physical health after being fired or laid off, and even more profound mental health consequences. The impact on depression, in particular, was “robust,” Burgard reports.

In a second study using data from a 16-year survey of more than a thousand men and women nationwide, Burgard discovered that the mere fear of getting fired or laid off is damaging to health. “When we controlled for actual job losses, people who were chronically insecure had significantly more depressive symptoms and poorer self-rated health,” said Burgard.

In fact, she and her colleagues found, chronic job insecurity—an employee’s ongoing fear that his or her job may be at risk—is more strongly linked to poor health and depression than either actual job loss or a brush with a life-threatening illness. “We were really surprised,” Burgard says. “I guess we thought that part of the effect would be controlled by job loss, but it wasn’t.” The researchers controlled for pre-existing health conditions that might justifiably lead individuals to worry about job loss. They also measured res-pondents’ level of neuroticism, to control for the tendency of highly neurotic people to give low ratings of their mental and physical health and of their job security.

Burgard is now at work on a third study assessing the health effects of nonstandard work—including self-employment, contract labor, temp and part-time work—among women who are just leaving the U.S. welfare system. Since much nonstandard work can be tenuous, it can lead to significant job insecurity.

Photo by Peter Smith.

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