Poor quality work is worse for health and well-being than remaining unemployed

A new study using health data from Understanding Society has found that people employed in low-paying or highly stressful jobs may not actually enjoy better health than those who remain unemployed.

The aim of the study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, was to examine the association of job transition with health and stress. The researchers were particularly interested in comparing the health of those who remained unemployed with those who transitioned to poor quality work.

Professor Tarani Chandola, from the University of Manchester, said, “Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed. Just as good work is good for health, we must also remember that poor quality work can be detrimental to health.”

What data was used?

The study monitored over 1,000 Understanding Society participants aged 35-75 who were unemployed during 2009-2010. The research followed participants over several years considering their self-reported health and their levels of chronic stress, as indicated by hormonal and other biomarkers relating to stress.

The team used the first three Waves of the Understanding Society dataset. In 2010–12 (Waves 2 and 3), adult respondents were invited to take part in a nurse health assessment interview which collected a range of physiological measures and blood samples.

Read more about Understanding Society’s health data

The researchers found that there was a clear pattern of higher levels of chronic stress for adults who moved into poor quality work, compared to those adults who remained unemployed. Adults who found good quality employment had the lowest levels of stress related biomarkers. In terms of physical health, the research found that working was not associated with an improvement in health, compared to those who remained unemployed.

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.

How was a poor quality job defined?

Levels of job quality were based on different measures; job satisfaction, job anxiety, job autonomy, job insecurity and levels of pay. For a fuller explanation of these descriptions, please read the full report.

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