Job insecurity takes toll on worker health


By Diane Swanbrow


Amid growing news of layoffs, outsourcing, corporate bankruptcies and downsizing, a U-M study finds that feeling insecure about your job takes a toll on physical and mental health—whether you actually lose your job or not.

In fact, the health effects of job insecurity are at least as great as the health effects of a serious or life-threatening illness, according to a study of job insecurity and health in the United States that was to be presented April 1 at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Los Angeles.

The study is based on an analysis of data from a nationally representative, longitudinal survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research (ISR), and includes information on more than 1,000 men and women under the age of 60 who were interviewed twice, about three years apart.

"The strength of this study is that we not only have multiple measures of insecurity but we also have actual measures of job loss," says Sarah Burgard, a sociologist at ISR and the lead author of the study.

Since only those who remained employed at both points in time were included in the analysis, the findings are not attributable to health problems related to actual job loss and extended unemployment.

The research also controlled for major health shocks that occurred during the three-year period, and measured respondents' level of neuroticism, to control for the tendency of highly neurotic people to give low ratings of their mental and physical health, and of their job security.

"How likely is it that during the next couple of years you will involuntarily lose your main job?" participants were asked. Those who said "very likely" or "somewhat likely" were considered insecure, while those who replied "not too likely" or "not at all likely" were considered secure.

About 25 percent of respondents reported feeling insecure about their jobs in at least one of two interviews.

Burgard found that self-rated health was significantly lower for respondents who reported feeling insecure about their jobs. Compared to workers who felt secure at both interviews, those who were chronically insecure were about twice as likely to report physical health that was less than very good or excellent. She also found that private-sector employees were more vulnerable to the negative health effects of job insecurity than were public-sector employees.

Job insecurity took a particularly high toll on Black workers, the researchers found. Blacks who were chronically insecure about their jobs were nearly three times as likely as insecure whites and more than four times as likely as secure whites to report very high depressive symptoms.

As the U.S. labor market increasingly adds more nonstandard jobs with reduced hours and benefits, offering employers the flexibility to hire and fire to meet demand, the study suggests some of the fallout for workers.

Other studies have found that at least some concern about the possibility of losing their jobs has begun to affect a larger and more diverse fraction of the population. As increased flexibility in the labor market leaves increasing numbers of workers at all levels with concerns about the future of their positions, and the potential consequences of job loss continue to be substantial, job insecurity will only grow as a potentially potent risk to population health.

"Policy-makers may want to attend to differences in the likely consequences for some groups of workers, including African Americans and those in the private sector," Burgard says.

Burgard's collaborators on the study are U-M researchers Jennie Brand and James House. Burgard and Brand both were supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars Program, and the data for the analysis were collected with support from grants from the National Institute on Aging and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigators in Health Policy Research Program.

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"I worry that if I can't be happy with myself, then nobody will ever be happy with me, and that just makes me even more paranoid. The insecurity, low confidence, and diffidence, it's all a cycle and it's destroying me."


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