Why having a bad job can be worse than no job at all

Let's face it. There are some jobs that are nicer than others. There are some jobs we would really not like to have to do at all. But if the choice is between not having a job and having one, albeit not a good one, surely we are better off to choose to be in work?

Not having a job, or being unemployed especially when for a significant period of time has been linked with poorer mental health. It is associated with having lower self esteem, a feeling of helplessness, and a greater risk of developing anxiety and depression.

Until now Governments have tended to focus on the negative aspects of joblessness on mental health. But in some circumstances, finding yourself in a bad job can be just as bad for your mental well being.

7000 Australians were recently polled to ask about their mental health and job status.

If they had a job they were asked to rate it according to • how difficult or demanding the work was, • whether they felt they had any degree of control in their workplace, • whether they thought their job was secure • and whether they thought their level of pay was fair.

Of the 7000, those without work polled worse on mental well-being, which was not unexpected. But for those who perceived themselves as having a poor job, taking into account other social factors such as educational attainments and marital status, it was found that they had lower mental health outcomes than those who were unemployed.

Those with the lowest rating of quality of work showed the sharpest rate of decline in mental health over time. The greater the number of adverse working conditions the worse the mental health outcome.

So can mental health be expected to improve when a previously unemployed person finds work? The short answer is yes. But again, the actual health benefits related again to the quality of the job attained. Getting a good job after a period of unemployment saw an improvement in mental health by a factor of three points. Conversely getting a poor job after unemployment saw a far greater worsening of mental health by a factor of 5.6 points.

What these findings indicate is that Governments need to consider psychosocial work quality when designing employment and welfare policy. It clearly is inadequate and makes poor sense to ignore this and focus just on getting an unemployed person back onto the work force.

It appears that having a bad job is more harmful to your mental well being than not having a job at all.

Ref: P Butterworth, L S Leach, L Strazdins, S C Olesen, B Rodgers, D H Broom. The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2011; DOI: 10.1136/oem.2010.059030