Bad job worse for health than no job: study

A low-paid short-term job can be as harmful to a person's mental health as no job at all, researchers in Canberra, Australia, have found.
Construction worker Tera Burbank has been out of work for more than a year in Nevada, where a construction boom has given way to a historic recession and a record unemployment. Working in a badly paid, poorly supported or short-term job may be worse for mental health than being jobless, a new Australian study suggests. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

A low-paid short-term job can be as harmful to a person's mental health as no job at all, researchers in Canberra, Australia, have found.

The researchers analyzed seven years of data about 7,155 people of working age in Australia.

They found that people who took poorly paid or short-term jobs at places that offered no workplace support could experience the same, or worse, mental health as unemployed people.

The findings are important, since employment policy is often focused solely on the risks of joblessness, despite evidence that bad jobs can erode mental health, said Dr. Peter Butterworth of the Centre for Mental Health Research at Australian National University and his co-authors.

"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," they said.

"Psychosocial job quality is a pivotal factor that needs to be considered in the design and delivery of employment and welfare policy."

People in the study who were employed were asked about their working conditions, such as complexity, level of control and perceived job security, as well as whether they felt their wages were fair.

Deteriorating work conditions

The researchers noted that paid work offers people a defined social role and purpose, friendships and structured time. But jobs with unfavourable working conditions are not healthy, they said.

For the study, the researchers gave unemployed people a mental-health score of 68 .5, which was based on the five-item Mental Health Inventory measuring depression, anxiety, and positive well-being. Those who were employed had an average score of 75.1. 

Getting a high-quality job after being unemployed boosted mental health by an average of three points in the study.

But getting a poor quality job led to a drop of 5.6 points — bringing the score below that of people who remained unemployed. A difference of at least four points is considered meaningful or clinically relevant.

Australia's social safety net includes a welfare system that provides free or low-cost health services and unemployment benefits, the team noted.

Economic research has already suggested that deregulation opened the way to deteriorating working conditions, such as the erosion of premium pay for shift and weekend work and less training and fewer on-the-job opportunities for temporary workers. 

The Australian researchers concluded that erosion of work conditions may have both economic and social health costs.

The study will appear in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published by BMJ Group.

It was funded by the Australian Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.