When not working makes us sick | Women's Agenda

When not working makes us sick

Doing the standard working week year after year can take its toll on even the most dedicated and enthusiastic worker, but spare a thought for the long-term unemployed who are typically suffering from anxiety and depression, or at best, living in a state of general unhappiness.

While working isn’t always enjoyable, studies show that not working is far worse for us than holding down even a boring full-time job. Put simply, unemployment is a health hazard with those unable to find work needing all the support they can get.

Public health expert Elizabeth Harris has dedicated much of her research, including her PhD to addressing the impact on the health of long-term unemployment. She is also concerned about the increasing “casualisation” of the workforce on employees, a situation which she says breeds job insecurity which in turn impacts directly on health.

Joblessness affects physical health too

While mental health problems associated with unemployment are now well understood albeit not always properly treated, new studies are finding that physical health is also affected during periods of joblessness.

“While we can all understand the psychological impact of unemployment many people don’t realise that heart disease and respiratory problems are also problematic for those out of work, and that they are often independent of lifestyle,” she says.

“It can be argued that if you are under a lot of psychological stress, it can affect your immunity and lower immunity makes your more vulnerable to poor physical health.

Harris stresses that any reported health problem must be taken seriously and “not written off as being psychological”.

“We tend to say, ‘you’re stressed, of course you’ll feel bad’, but GPs need to eliminate potential for things like heart problems too.”

It’s a grim situation all round with suicide and attempted suicide also higher among the unemployed spurring on people like Harris to support GPs to adopt a broader approach to treating their patients.
GPs can offer basic CBT

Harris’ research also indicates that patients often feel they are not being listened to in the doctor’s surgery. She would like to see GPs not only referring patients to a psychologist, but also providing their patients with some skills in problem solving, time-structuring and dealing with insomnia, although she concedes there are time constraints with a standard consultation.

Harris and her colleagues have developed a manual for GPs called “Walk the Talk”, using cognitive behavioural therapy to help their patients learn to think differently or less negatively about their situation. The program aims to increase motivation and confidence in job-search, minimises self-doubt, self-blame and negativity about being unemployed, while promoting coping strategies related to job seeking and getting back into the workforce.

“The idea is that GPs provide basic CBT then refer to a psychologist for a more intensive course.”

She would also like to see more GPs working closely with the patient’s family if both patient and family are agreeable. “Parents often say [to their young adult children] ‘get off the couch and get your act together’ but sometimes they can’t. People can become immobilised by the extent of their unemployment and how they perceive their problems. It’s about really trying to acknowledge that there are reactions that we should understand and accept that they are a legitimate way to react to these situations.”

The 9 vitamins of work

As Harris points out, there is so much more to gain from regular employment than just an income and for this reason, those who are jobless are missing out on what she calls important “vitamins” that would normally sustain them in their jobs and in their life outside of work.

Citing a popular theory proposed by British academic Peter Warr in 1987, she says workplace vitamins boost employees’ wellbeing and resilience so for those not working they need to find other ways of getting their “vitamins” which are based around the following:

  1. Opportunity to control your work autonomously
  2. Opportunity to use and develop your skills
  3. Clarity of goals and role
  4. Variety of tasks
  5. Performance requirements and feedback
  6. Social support and contact
  7. Financial rewards
  8. Physical comfort and security
  9. Position and status


“Studies show money isn’t the most important reason people work,” Harris explains. “One of the problems faced by people who are unemployed is that they are largely invisible in the community which is difficult because we know how important it is to have a valued place in society.

“However, if you haven’t got a job you can still get your “vitamins” in other ways and that’s when people talk about the happy unemployed. They are the ones who still have purpose, social contact, a valued place in society and are able to control many aspects of what they do.”

Which is perhaps why men traditionally suffered more than women from the stigma of unemployment given a woman canoften identify strongly as the homemaker and have this valued by the community. While this situation is changing with more women entering the workforce, Harris believes men still bear the brunt of the stigma of unemployment.

Job insecurity is also making us sick

But as Harris alluded to previously, it’s not just unemployment that’s making us sick. The ‘casualisation’of the workforce and job insecurity is increasingly affecting health she says, and this is backed up by a recent US study that found workers who perceive their jobs aren’t secure are more likely to rate themselves in poor health.

The study showed workers with job insecurity were nearly 4 times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety attacks and close to 7 times more likely to have symptoms suggesting minor or major depression.

The researchers concluded that with a fragile US job market showing little sign of improvement, interventions are needed to target the large number of people who may be suffering the mental and physical health from job worries.

Better quality of care

Back in Australia, our economic picture is somewhat rosier but still, unemployment continues to plague a couple of million of us right now. Previously happy, stable workers who have been retrenched struggle with long periods of depression as they encounter barriers to work and multiple setbacks in tight labour markets.

But thanks to people like Harris, perhaps our healthcare professionals will now be better able support and treat these people, and help break the vicious cycle of poor mental health actively preventing employment, a disabling scenario that’s all too common these days.

Tips for staying positive during your job search:

  • Face your feelings – challenge negative thoughts and don’t beat yourself up because of your situation. Grief is normal after losing a job so accept your feelings and go easy on yourself.

  • Reach out – turn to people you trust for support rather than trying to deal with your job loss alone. Perhaps join or start a club and importantly, stay connected through networking.

  • Involve your family – keep them in the loop and listen to their concerns. Perhaps even give them a chance to make suggestions regarding your situation. Importantly, make time for some family fun.

  • Take care of yourself – Maintain a balance and don’t let job searching consume you. Make time for plenty of exercise, sleep well and practice relaxation techniques.

  • Stay positive – easier said than done but keeping a regular daily routine helps. Also, focus on things you can control rather than things you can’t, and if you have spar etime volunteering can help you maintain a sense of value and purpose – helping others is an instant mood booster.

    This article first appeared on It’s My Health. It is republished here with full permission. 

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