'Poor Quality' Job as Mentally Harmful as No Job

Study Suggests Leaving Unemployment for an Overly Demanding Job Can Take a Toll on Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 14, 2011
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March 14, 2011 -- Finding a “poor quality” job that’s overly demanding and where one feels a lack of job control or job security can be at least as harmful for a person’s mental health as being unemployed, a study shows.

Study researcher Peter Butterworth, PhD, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, tells WebMD that although having a job has been shown to have positive effects on both mental and physical health, moving from unemployment to a bad job can take a toll on your mental health.

“It seems in our study that the adverse effects of moving from unemployment into a poor quality job outweighed the benefits of no longer being employed,” Butterworth says in an email to WebMD.

He and other researchers studied 7,155 people in seven waves, coming up with more than 44,000 observations.

Questionnaire on Mental Health and Jobs

Every year, respondents’ mental health was assessed based on answers to a series of “psychosocial” questions about their jobs. The assessment reflected, among other things, the level of employee control, work schedules, job complexity, and perceived job security.

The respondents also were asked if they felt they received a fair wage for the work performed.

People who were unemployed, as expected, had poorer mental health scores overall than those who had jobs. But the researchers’ analysis found evidence that having a job didn’t automatically result in happiness.

Over time, people in jobs determined to be of the poorest quality experienced the sharpest declines of all in mental health scores.

“We looked at four different aspects of work in our study: whether people were working in highly complex and demanding jobs, whether they had a say in how they did their work, whether they considered they received fair pay for their efforts, and whether they felt secure in their job,” Butterworth says. “While these conditions will often be found in jobs in the service sector, call centers, or casual sales jobs, they can also be found in more ‘prestigious’ jobs.”

The researchers say a direct association was found between the number of unfavorable working conditions on a job and mental health difficulties, with each additional adverse condition reducing the person’s score on a mental health survey.

Finding a high-quality job after being unemployed improved mental health by an average of 3 points on the researchers’ scale. But getting a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed; people in this category showed a loss of 5.6 points.

“In the same way that we no longer accept workplaces that are physically unsafe or in which employees are exposed to dangerous or toxic substances, there could be a greater focus on ensuring a positive psychosocial environment at work,” Butterworth says. “And employers can also have an important role: promoting positive work practices can improve the health and therefore the productivity of their workforce.”

Unemployment and Mental Health

The study suggests paid work confers a number of benefits, including a social identity and purpose, friendships, and a way to structure time. Such factors “are important for positive mental health,” Butterworth says “but it’s also the case that not all work is equal.”

The study notes that “work first policies are based on the notion that any job is better than none,” but that doesn’t seem to be true, at least not in Australia.

“In Australia, the availability of a universal social safety net is likely to moderate the most adverse consequences of unemployment,” Butterworth says. “Not that life is rosy for those who are out of work, but access to unemployment benefits and health care may help people to avoid the worse consequences of unemployment, such as extreme poverty.”

“It may be that unemployment will be associated with worse mental health than even the poorest quality work in countries with a less generous system of social protection,” Butterworth says.

The study states that the findings suggest that simply getting a job “may not necessarily lead to improvement in mental health and well-being” and that conditions of the job need to be taken into consideration.

Over the time period studied, people in “optimal jobs had better mental health than those in poorer quality jobs,” the study states.

“Our study indicates that the erosion of work conditions may incur a health cost, which over the longer term will be both economically and socially counterproductive,” the researchers write.

Show Sources


News release, BMJ Group.

Butterworth, P. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, March 2011.

Peter Butterworth, PhD, associate professor, Center for Mental Health Research, Australian National University, Canberra.

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