Unemployment And Mental Health Research Paper

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1. The Term Unemployment

How unemployment is defined and operationalized determines who is included (and excluded) as participants in empirical unemployment research and thereby to whom findings generalize as well as having important administrative, political and ideological assumptions.

Until recently, in so-called ‘developed’ industrialized countries, unemployment has been widely operationalized in terms of eligibility for State funded unemployment-specific financial support. However, although this embodies politically and administratively useful criteria, it is arbitrary from a social scientific perspective. Changes in the number of people who cease to be recorded as unemployed are not always the same as changes in the numbers of people at risk of psychological consequences of unemployment.

The International Labour Organisation counts people as unemployed if they have not undertaken any paid employment in the survey reference week, have looked for a job within the previous four weeks, and are available to start one within two weeks. This is preferable to the claimant count, but should jobless people who cease to actively look for employment due to hopelessness, depression, and/or demoralization, be considered any the less unemployed for social and behavioral purposes, especially if the psychological states which militate against active job search turn out to be consequences of unemployment?

The Broad Labour Force Survey counts all those who do not have but want a paid job and are available to start within two weeks but who have not necessarily been actively looking for a job. However, preferable though this operationalization is, it may still greatly underestimate the number of people who do not self-perceive themselves as satisfactorily employed and who are looking for employment. Many unemployed people take places on employment and training schemes only through fear of losing their state financial support if they decline. Others take part-time, short-term, or insecure jobs or become ‘underemployed’ only quasivoluntarily.

These people, along with those indicated by the Broad Labour Force Survey, constitute the so-called ‘slack’ labor force.

2. The Size Of The Unemployment Problem

These different ways of operationalizing unemployment suggest very different numbers of unemployed people. For example, in late 1999 in the UK, unemployment as indicated by ‘claimant eligibility’ stood at 1,209,600. As indicated by the International Labour Organisation the figure was 1,714,000, while the Broad Labour Force Survey gave a figure of 2,396,000 for the same period. The slack labor force, on the other hand, gave a figure of 4.6 million. Beyond the UK, the International Labour Organisation calculated unemployment to stand at 34 million in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1996.

3. The Relationship Between Unemployment And Mental Health

There have been valid grounds for concern about the social, physical, and mental health consequences of unemployment for at least 200 years, and this has been beyond reasonable doubt since the 1930s (Eisenberg and Lazarsfeld 1938, Lazarsfeld-Jahoda and Zeisel 1933). In the early days, fear, frustration, irritability, declining self-respect, decreasingly meaningful sense of time, loneliness, apathy and resignation, and poorer physical health were noted. These were broadly confirmed by substantial empirical research and scholarship in the 1980s but standardized measures checked for reliability and validity were preferred. Anxiety, depression, positive and negative self-esteem, and a variety of measures of affect were studied repeatedly. Rather than ‘demoralization,’ researchers wrote of ‘psychological well-being’ and the General Health Questionnaire was used widely. That there are negative mental health consequences of unemployment is being reiterated currently by sophisticated reviews and meta- reviews.

Research clarifying the relationship between un- employment and mental health has been carried out in Australia, New Zealand, USA, and many European countries over many decades. The resulting large literature has operationalized mental health in a wide range of ways, has been carried out using just about every viable research method, has been supported by diverse funding arrangements, and has been under- taken from a variety of ideological starting positions. Of course the impact of unemployment is not homogenous: some are affected more negatively than others, and a number of moderator variables have been identified. Effective coping with unemployment is also widespread. However, the degree of consensus is startling. Groups of unemployed people almost always have poorer mental health than groups of otherwise similar but employed people and unemployment is overwhelmingly found to be the cause of poor mental health rather than the result of it.

For many, the well-designed, longitudinal studies, which have tracked large, carefully matched, samples of people in and out of paid jobs using standardized measures, are the key studies. Some of the most persuasive longitudinal quantitative studies of all were done with young people. Typically, these studies measure the mental health of large groups of young people in school and follow them out into the labor market, periodically measuring the mental health of those who get jobs and those who do not, and comparing group mean scores cross-sectionally and longitudinally. Groups of unemployed youngsters repeatedly are demonstrated to have poorer mental health than their employed peers but statistically significant differences are seldom found between the scores of the same groups when at school.

Many such studies have been done, but three research programs have been particularly influential. The first was the 1980s research program based at the Social and Applied Psychology Unit in Sheffield, England (see Warr 1987 for an overview). The second program was based at The Flinders University of South Australia (see Feather 1992 for an overview). The third was based at the University of Adelaide (see Winefield et al. 1993 for an overview). In brief, such studies provide powerful evidence that unemployment causes, rather than merely results from, poor psycho- logical health.

Recently, sophisticated meta-reviews have re- iterated that social causation is involved. For example, Murphy and Athanasou (1999) conducted a meta- review of 16 longitudinal studies using valid and reliable measures and published in the last 10 years in English-language scientific journals. They concluded that ‘the results from the 16 longitudinal studies suggest that unemployment has reliable (negative) effects on mental health’ and that ‘effect size information … suggests that moving from unemployment to employment not only produces a reliable change to mental health, but a change that is ‘‘practically significant.’’ ’

It was never remotely plausible that mass unemployment was caused by mass, sometimes organizationally confined, epidemics of mental illness, but of course, in some individual cases, pre-existing mental health problems do predispose people to loss of, and/or failure to get, a job. However, even here social causation processes may be hard to discount completely. For example, during economic recession some employers ratchet up the criteria they use to select employees with the result that people are excluded from employment on mental and physical health grounds at one stage of the economic cycle, who would have been employed in other economic circumstances. Other conceptual and methodological concerns suggesting the stark dichotomy between social causation and individual drift may be unhelpful are discussed more fully in Fryer (1997).

In conclusion, research has persuaded most researchers in the field that unemployment has mental health consequences that are negative and widespread.

4. Disguised Unemployment

According to Dooley and Catalano (1999), in the US ‘under-employment (involuntary part-time or poverty wage) both appears increasingly common and seems to have health effects more like those of unemployment than adequate employment.’ Part-time work, on-call contracts, fixed-term contracts, seasonal work, agency work, home-working, teleworking, freelancing, self- employment, and informal work are all on the in- crease. In 1992, 9.3 percent of workers in the European Union were on temporary contracts, with more than three out of five of such jobs being in low-skilled occupations. About 15 percent of the European workforce was employed part-time in 1991, and the percentage is increasing year on year. However, there is massive variation between countries: Nearly a third of employment in the Netherlands is part-time as opposed to less then 4 percent in Greece, for example. More than half of part-time work in the European Union is done by low-skilled, low-paid workers. Twice as many women as men are employed part-time. The trend looks set to continue. In May 1999, the OECD recommended member countries to make working practices more flexible: abolishing employment protection policies; ensuring minimum wages for young people are not too high; switching from unemployment to in-work benefits.

What are the psychological consequences of dis- guised unemployment? As long ago as 1938, it was recognized that ‘just having a job itself is not as important as having a feeling of economic security. Those who are economically insecure, employed or unemployed, have a low morale’ (Eisenberg and Lazarsfeld 1938). Advances in clarifying the concept of job insecurity came with Hartley et al. (1991). Studies in Israel, the Netherlands, and the UK showed that job insecurity is associated with experienced powerlessness, impaired mental health (depression and reported psychosomatic symptoms), reduced job satisfaction, reduced organizational commitment, reduced trust in management, resistance to change, and poorer industrial relations. Burchell et al. (1999) reported that job insecurity has increased gradually since the 1960s for both men and women in both full-time and part-time employment and is now higher than at any time since 1945. While job insecurity traditionally has been accepted as problematic for blue-collar workers, professional workers, who in 1987 were the most secure workers, were found to be the most job insecure 10 years later. Job insecurity was associated with poorer psychological wellbeing, poorer family relations, and organizational demotivation. Both physical and mental wellbeing was found to continue to deteriorate rather than stabilize with continuing job insecurity.

Evaluation of mental health consequences of participation in employment and training schemes reveals a complex picture. Some cross-sectional research found trainees’ mental health was not significantly worse than that of an employed comparison group and was significantly better than an unemployed comparison group. However, other research found that trainees were significantly more depressed than an employed comparison group and not significantly less depressed than an unemployed comparison group. Still other research revealed a multifaceted experience of ‘community program’ with participants positive about some aspects and negative about others. The nature of the labor market context, quality of training and job placement, and degree of experienced compulsion are probably critical. Some research has found that unemployed people, of any age (male or female), who were coerced into employment through workfare-type programs used medical facilities more frequently. Their use of primary care decreased if they became unemployed again

Re-employment is likely to be at a lower level, yet re-employment in poor-quality jobs can be as psychologically corrosive as unemployment. Kaufman (1982) reported that 20 percent of his re-employed professionals were under-employed (in terms of salary, type of work, and skill use), and less than 50 percent said their lives had returned to normal after re-employment. Fineman (1987) found ‘those re-employed in jobs which they felt to be inadequate were experiencing more stress and even poorer self-esteem, than they had during their period of unemployment.’ Graetz (1993) showed that ‘the benefits of employment are confined to those, albeit a majority, who manage to find a satisfying job. In contrast, those who do not end up in a satisfying job—approximately one in every five workers—report the highest levels of health disorders. At the same time, the adverse consequences of job loss are confined to those who were satisfied with their former jobs.’ More recently still, Leana and Feldman (1995) report that ‘unsatisfactorily re-employed workers reported significantly higher levels of anxiety and psychological distress than those who were satisfactorily re-employed; they also reported significantly lower levels of life satisfaction than those who were unemployed.’

5. Methodological Issues

The method of choice of most recent research on unemployment and mental health has been to contrast the better mean mental health of employed with the worse mean mental health of unemployed people in both cross-sectional and longitudinal designs. In the past the mental health of employed groups has been reliably better than that of otherwise comparable unemployed groups. However, should the mental health of the majority of those in employment deteriorate, the formerly reliable finding that unemployed respondents have poorer mean mental health than otherwise similar employed people would no longer be found, without it being the case that unemployment was any the less pathogenic. With the apparently inexorable march of the ‘flexible labor market,’ it may now be only a matter of time until that happens. The realization that comparison of labor market transition outcomes is unsatisfactory in certain economic circumstances should alert researchers to the fact that it has always relied upon ideologically problematic assumptions about the salutogenic nature of employment.

Rather than relying on discovering differences in outcomes, researchers must increasingly try to uncover the detailed multilevel processes through which the social causation of mental health problems by unemployment occurs. This is likely to require use of a much wider range of ecologically contextualized and collaborative research methods, including qualitative, action research, and participatory methods. Given the vast scale of socially caused health problems attributable to unemployment, training clinicians and treating negatively affected individuals one at a time is practically impossible as well as ineffective and offensive. Prevention and structural intervention must be priorities.

6. Future Directions Of Theory And Research

Radical rethinking of the alleged dichotomy between employment and unemployment is required. The problems of unemployment are still widely and mistakenly seen as merely the problems of the absence of employment. For many unemployed people the search for employment and the hoops through which they have to jump in order to keep body and soul together is a stressful low-status, insecure, part-time, poorly paid job in itself, carried out in poor working conditions, with virtually no negotiating rights or scope for collective action under potentially punitive state surveillance and with a high risk of occupational strain. Unemployment is ready for job redesign.


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