Why having a job isn’t always better for our health

Unemployment is widely regarded as contributing to a range of mental and physical health issues.  Is any job better than no job though?  That was the question posed by a team from the University of Manchester in a recently published study.

It finds that this is not always the case, with people employed in low paid or stressful jobs often not enjoying better health than those who are still unemployed.

Job transitions

The study sought to examine any link between our health and stress levels and job transitions, with a particular focus on the health of people who remained unemployed versus those who went into poor quality work.

A group of participants, who were unemployed at the start of the study, were tracked for a further two years, both in terms of their allostatic load biomarkers and self-reported health.

The allostatic load is a reflection of the physiological consequences of a prolonged period of chronic stress.  It’s a commonly used measure of how work-related stress impacts our health.  Traditionally it takes data across ten distinct physiological measures, including from the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems.  The researchers expanded this to include a further two readings that helped to provide coverage of areas such as cholesterol and blood pressure.

The team then looked to measure job quality by using five distinct variables: pay, insecurity, control, satisfaction and anxiety.

Not all jobs are equal

When the biomarkers were analyzed, a clear pattern began to emerge for people who went from unemployment to low quality work.  High stress levels and deteriorating health were remarkably common in this group, in stark contrast to those who moved into high quality jobs, who all had low levels of the biomarkers.

People who moved into poor quality jobs reported significantly higher stress levels, with a transition into this kind of work having no benefit at all on ones physical health.  By contrast, moving into good quality work was associated with improvements in both physical and mental health.

“Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed,” the authors say. “Just as good work is good for health, we must also remember poor quality work can be detrimental to health.”