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Bad Jobs Harm Mental Health

March 16 2011 - A bad job can be as harmful to mental health as being unemployed, according to results from a longitudinal Australian household panel survey

Government policies tend to focus on the impact of joblessness and ignore the consequences of job quality, because being in work is associated with better mental health than being unemployed. However, results published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine show that badly paid, poorly supported, or short term jobs can be as harmful as being without a job.

The report is based on seven 'waves of data' collected from more than 7000 working age Australians, drawn from a representative national household survey conducted each year (HILDA). They were asked about their employment status and also their mental health was assessed using a validated inventory (MHI).

Respondents in work had the 'psychosocial' quality of their jobs graded according to measures relating to:

  • demands and complexity
  • level of control
  • perceived job security

They were also asked if they considered that the wage they received was fair.

Not surprisingly, overall, unemployed respondents had poorer mental health than those in work, consistent with evidence showing that employment is associated with better physical and mental health. Mental health tends to improve when unemployed people find jobs.

However, when other factors that potentially could influence the results, including educational attainment and marital status, were taken into account, the mental health of unemployed respondents was similar to, and often better than, people with poor quality jobs. Whereas paid work confers a number of benefits, such as:

  • a defined social role and purpose
  • friendships, and structured time

But the authors argue that jobs which are very demanding, afford little control, and provide little support and reward, are not good for health. Their findings showed that job quality predicted mental health and the health benefits of finding a job after a period of unemployment depended on the quality of the post. While getting a high quality job after a period of worklessness improved mental health by an average of 3 points, getting a poor quality job had a worse impact on mental health than remaining unemployed - showing up as a loss of 5.6 points.

According to the authors:

"Work first policies are based on the notion that any job is better than none as work promotes economic as well as personal wellbeing. "Psychosocial job quality is a pivotal factor that needs to be considered in the design and delivery of employment and welfare policy."

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