Interview: Having a bad job may be worse for your health than having no job at all

August 16, 2017

People working in low paying, unstable jobs show more signs of chronic stress than their counterparts who remain unemployed.

For the unemployed, finding a job can be a path to improved mental health, but only if it’s a good one, a recent study finds. Researchers tracked 1116 British adults who were unemployed in 2009-2010. Those who found good jobs enjoyed improved mental health outcomes, while those who found jobs that were stressful, poorly paid, or unstable saw no improvement. In fact, the physical indicators of chronic stress were even higher in people working in bad jobs than in those who remained unemployed. We spoke with study author Tarani Chandola, a medical sociologist at the University of Manchester, about the study.

ResearchGate: What were you trying to find out with this research?

Tarani Chandola: I was trying to test the common assumption that any job is better than no job. I have been working on work, stress, and health for a number of years, and people accept that having a stressful job is not good for your physical and mental health. But most people then say, “but at least you have a job,” with the implicit assumption that being unemployed is far worse for your health than having a stressful and poor quality job.

RG: What characterizes “good” and “poor quality” jobs?

Chandola: I used OECD definitions of poor job quality based on low pay (around or just below the minimum wage), low job security, low job satisfaction and control, and high job anxiety. Those in jobs with none of these adverse job characteristics were in good jobs, and those with two or more of these characteristics were in poor quality jobs.

RG: How does working in a good job affect previously unemployed people’s health?

Chandola: There is a marked improvement in mental health of adults who started working in good jobs, especially compared to any changes in mental health for their peers who remained unemployed.

RG: What about when unemployed people start working in bad jobs?

Chandola: There was no improvement in the mental health of adults who started working in bad jobs—their levels of mental health were very similar to those who remained unemployed. But the levels of chronic stress related biomarkers among those who started working in bad jobs were much higher than their peers who remained unemployed. These biomarkers related to stress are very different from self-perceptions of stress and are based on elevated levels of hormones, inflammatory, metabolic and cardiovascular levels such as higher blood pressure and cholesterol.

RG: Your study looks at British adults. Do you think the results would be similar in other countries?

Chandola: Yes, a few other studies in countries like Australia also have found that unemployed adults who are re-employed in bad jobs have poorer health than those who remained unemployed.

RG: Would you recommend that unemployed people turn down poor quality jobs?

Chandola: No, but if the workers suspect that their work is making them ill, they need to do something about it. This does not mean leaving their bad jobs, but rather informing their doctor about this, making their managers know about how their work is disabling them. Employers have a duty of protection for the health of their workers, and need to make reasonable adjustments if they have a disability. Flexible working arrangements such as reduced hours working is one of the ways people with limiting health conditions can manage work and their health.

Featured image courtesy of the Scottish Government.

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