A Bad Job Can Be Worse for Your Mental Health Than No Job at All, Study Shows

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A Bad Job Can Be Worse Than No Job At All, Say Psychologists We're all aware of the painful psychological impact unemployment can have on a person. Diminished self esteem, anxiety, depression and lack of sleep are among the mental symptoms that can also affect physical health, as researchers at Washington and Lee University reported in 2008. In a 2009 study, The Anguish of Unemployment, Rutgers University researchers even quantified the psychological trauma of job loss.

But a new study reveals something that may surprise some victims of this recession: A bad job can be as harmful to your mental health as no job at all, and in fact, it can be even worse.

"Because employment is associated with better mental health than unemployment, policy has focused on the risk posed by joblessness, although there is evidence that poor quality jobs can erode mental health," wrote the authors of the study published last week online in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The Worse the Job, the Steeper the Decline

The researchers who conducted the Australian study based their findings on data from more than 7,000 people of working age. The respondents were asked about their employment status, and were assessed using the mental health inventory -- a measure of general psychological distress and well-being, both positive and negative.

For those who were employed, the researchers also assessed the quality of their jobs using four factors: demands and complexity of the job; level of control; perceived job security; and whether or not employees thought they were paid fairly for the work they did.

As expected, the authors noted, the unemployed had poorer mental health overall than the employed. But the study also showed that the mental health of the unemployed was comparable or even superior to the mental health of those in poor-quality jobs. In fact, those in the worst jobs experienced the sharpest declines in mental health over time.

As the number of unfavorable working conditions increased, the more the mental health scores declined. The relationship was strong enough that job quality actually predicted subsequent mental health.

The researchers found that while moving from unemployment into a high-quality job led to improvement in mental health, finding a poor-quality job after a period of unemployment didn't. In fact, "the transition from unemployment to a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed," the authors wrote.

"The results demonstrate the relevance of psychosocial job quality for the design of employment policies. Work-first policies are based on the notion that any job is better than none as work promotes economic as well as personal well being." The authors conclude, "The current results, therefore suggest that employment strategies seeking to promote positive outcomes for unemployed individuals need to also take account of job design and workplace policy."
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