Is High Unemployment Making Us All Sick?

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Our persistently high unemployment rate is not only bad for the economy, it’s bad for our bodies and souls as well. Unemployment wears down the unemployed both mentally and physically. But high unemployment also hurts those with jobs, as some workers worry endlessly (and not without justification) that they too could be let go at almost any moment, while others cling to jobs they hate because they’re acutely aware that almost no one’s hiring at the moment. (It’s a lot easier to tell your boss to go to hell if recruiters have you on speed dial.) Indeed, some research suggests that job insecurity, and the anxieties it provokes, can have even worse health effects than actually losing your job.

The unemployment rate currently sits at a little above 8%. While it’s down almost a percentage point from last year (in part because so many long-term unemployed have given up looking for work), few are predicting a sudden burst of hiring that could knock us out of our current malaise. Indeed, some are suggesting that we may have reached a new “natural level” of unemployment, a bit of speculation that’s all the more depressing because it’s all too plausible.

This is bad news for our bodies. Researchers have noted the serious effects of unemployment on our health for decades. One recent study by a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health found that in the year and a half after losing their jobs, laid-off workers were at twice the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease than those fortunate enough to remain employed. In a very real sense, unemployment kills: a 2009 study found that workers in Pennsylvania who lost their jobs at the age of 40 had their life expectancy reduced by a year.

(MORE: Work from Home and You Might Miss a Raise)

And unemployment wreaks havoc on our minds as well. The authors of a 2010 Pew Research Center report on the effects of long-term unemployment note that losing a job means not only “lost income” but “lost friends [and] lost self-respect” as well. Robert L. Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, recently told CNN that “being unemployed is actually one of the most difficult, most devastating experiences that people go through.” According to Leahy, unemployment doubles the chance of someone suffering from a major depressive episode — and this brings with it an increased chance of suicide.

But things aren’t much better for the employed, many of whom worry constantly about the very real prospect of losing their jobs in an unfriendly economy. Many put in longer hours and are unwilling to take advantage of their vacation days, hoping to convince their employers that they are team players. All this means more stress in an already stressful work environment.

This stress and worry has clear health effects. On Alternet, economic journalist Lynn Parramore makes the case that “Job Insecurity [Is] the Disease of the 21st Century — and It’s Killing Us.” Her language sometimes veers toward the melodramatic — at one point she refers to “freaked-out employees … coping with sweat-drenched nights and heart-pounding days.”

(MORE: The War on Suicide?)

But the problem she documents is all too real. A new study of workers in the state of Michigan, cited by Parramore, found that those who were worried about their jobs were significantly more likely to develop depression or suffer anxiety attacks or both. Earlier work by the same lead researcher, sociologist Sarah Burgard of the University of Michigan, found that employees worried about their jobs were more likely to suffer from depression and poor health than those who lost their jobs and got a new one. As Burgard told LiveScience, “chronic job insecurity was a stronger predictor of poor health than either smoking or hypertension in one of the groups we studied.”

And she’s not the only one to reach that dire conclusion. Research by  Stuart Whitaker, an occupational-health expert at the University of Cumbria in England, also suggests that worrying about being fired may be worse than being fired. As Whitaker told the Guardian:

Employees who are afraid of losing their jobs enter a damaging “anticipatory phase,” where they are aware their position is under threat but have no further knowledge … Employees made redundant or sacked move out of this phase into a “termination” phase, where they deal with the consequences rather than worrying about them.

At this point, you may want to sneak into the bathroom to have a little cry.