Among American workers, fear of losing your job is linked to health problems

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Constantly worrying about losing your job may be worse for your health than actually getting laid off or being unemployed, according to a study published in the September issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine. By analyzing two large, long-term data sets for some 1,700 U.S. workers, sociologists from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Los Angeles found that the persistent stress of not knowing whether you’ll be employed the next year was strongly correlated with people reporting both poorer health, and higher incidence of depressive symptoms.

The study relied on two long term data sets collected between 1986-1989, and 1995-2005, that included both in person and telephone interviews. Additionally, participants were surveyed multiple times over the study period and asked to assess both their current physical and mental health. For physical health assessments, participants were asked, “How would you rate your health at the present time?”, and told to respond on a scale of 1-5, in which 1 was poor and 5 was excellent. For mental health, they were asked to state how frequently in the previous month they felt that “everything I did was an effort,” or “I did not feel like eating,” for example.

To measure perceived job insecurity, researchers asked questions such as, “How likely is it that during the next couple of years you will involuntarily lose your job?” Participants were asked to respond with “not at all likely,” “not too likely,” “somewhat likely,” or “very likely.” (They also measured potential job loss based on worker history—asking how many times an individual had been fired or laid off in the last three years.)

What the researchers found was, that even after controlling for a vast range of factors including race, age, gender, smoking, job characteristics and even tendency toward neuroticism—to ensure it wasn’t just the worrywarts experiencing these outcomes, long term worry over losing a job was associated with reports of poorer physical and mental health.

Though job instability isn’t a new development, nor is it specific to the modern economy, the researchers suggest that increasing “flexibility” in the present day labor market may mean that more people are being forced to cope with stress that comes with uncertainty about the future, and that more people may be feeling the adverse health effects of that emotional turmoil as a result.