In terms of health, having any job is not necessarily better than not having a job.

Posted on under Today's research

In terms of health, having any job is not necessarily better than not having a job. In the US, the UK, the EU, and Australia politicians are currently crowing about how low the unemployment rate is. This, they say, should make people happy and vote for them. But, in the immortal words of the song in Porgy and Bess: “It ain’t necessarily so!”

A new paper published in the International Journal of Epidemiology finds that people employed in low paying or highly stressful jobs may not actually enjoy better health than those who remain unemployed.

There is some recent evidence showing that job quality is important for health and wellbeing, although some older studies suggest people in poor quality jobs are still better off in terms of life satisfaction and wellbeing than those who remain unemployed. However, before this study, there was little or no evidence on whether becoming re-employed in poor quality work is better for health and wellbeing than remaining unemployed. Yet this is precisely what is happening to a large number of people.

The researchers behind this study examined associations of job transition with health and chronic stress related biomarkers among a typical cohort of unemployed British adults.

The researchers were particularly interested in comparing the health of those who remained unemployed with those who transitioned to poor quality work and examine whether there was positive (or negative) health outcome from getting a good or poor quality job.

The 15,591 study participants were selected from the UK Household Longitudinal Study. They were unemployed during 2009- 2010 were followed up in 2010-2011 and in 2011-2012 for allostatic load biomarkers (i.e. physical signs of wear and tear on the body due to stress across the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems) and their level of self-reported health.

An overall standard of job quality was created by comparing five job quality variables—low pay, job insecurity, control, satisfaction, and anxiety.

Looking at the negative biomarkers, there was a clear pattern of the highest levels for adults who transitioned into poor quality work. Adults who transitioned into good quality jobs had the lowest levels of problems in the critical areas examined.

Compared to adults who remained unemployed, formerly unemployed adults who transitioned into poor quality jobs had more health problems. Good quality work was associated with an improvement in mental health scores compared to remaining unemployed, but there were no differences in mental health scores between those who transitioned into poor quality work and those who remained unemployed.

Overall the researchers found evidence that, compared to adults who remained unemployed, formerly unemployed adults who transitioned into poor quality jobs had elevated risks for a range of health problems.

“Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed,” said the paper’s lead author. “Just as good work is good for health, we must also remember poor quality work can be detrimental to health.”

So what? Lots of previous research has shown that unemployment, underemployment and being in a low-paid stressful job causes people to become depressed and hopeless. This, in turn, can lead to problems with, and to the ultimate failure of, their immune systems (see study here).

We at FM are seeing this depression everywhere at the moment due to the uncertainty caused by the increasing replacement of human workers by machines and the reduction in overall pay levels. I spoke to a leading recruiter not long ago who told me that in his experience anyone looking for a job having been made redundant must expect a 25-50% reduction in their remuneration.

What now? We need a serious debate as to the role of human beings in the workplace. Should employers be allowed to freely replace men and women with digitization and AI? Bill Gates doesn’t seem to think so, maybe he’s right (see previous TR). Maybe we’re wandering into Hell without a guide to get us out again. The debate needs to be held at every workplace, in every parliament, and in every church or association.