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Is hating your job worse than losing it?

Is hating your job worse than losing it?

Losing your job can be a traumatic experience for many people. Indeed, recent research shows that job loss for men is more stressful than divorce. But new insights show that people may be more resilient than previously thought. Also a job you hate may cause more stress than unemployment.

A new study, conducted by Kate Strully, a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Harvard School of Public Health, has found that losing your job can make you sick. She found that "job churning," defined as high rates of job loss but low unemployment, has negative health consequences for workers who are not already sick, indicating the odds of reporting poor health increased by 54%. In addition, Strully commented that unlike the results of job loss due to an establishment closure, when health effects were analyzed based on workers who were fired or laid off, significant differences were found based on the workers' occupations. While being fired or laid off or leaving a job voluntarily more than doubles the odds of a fair or poor health report among blue-collar workers, whereas such job displacements have no significant association with the health reports of white-collar workers.

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"As we consider ways to improve health in American during a time of economic recession and rising unemployment, it is critical that we look beyond health care reform to understand the tremendous impact that factors like job loss have on our health," says David R. Williams, Norman Professor of Public Health at Harvard University.

Yet, while losing your job is a profoundly distressing experience, the unemployed may be more resilient than previously believed, according to Issaac Galatzer-Levy of the New York University School of Medicine, who published his research in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics. The research examined people who had lost their job over a long period--from 3 years before job loss to 4 years after job loss. The largest group (69%) who had high and stable levels of life satisfaction before losing their jobs, within a year of losing their jobs had regained their level of life satisfaction, whether or not they were employed. The lowest well being group (4%) were those who had low levels of life satisfaction before job loss and it continued for up to 3 years after job loss.

George Bonanno, a psychology professor at Columbia University and part of he research team says, "We've looked at other traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, terrorist attack, traumatic injury, and we generally see high proportions of resilience...This suggests that people are more stressed out when they fear losing their jobs than they are when they actually get laid off."

According to research conducted in Australia and reported in the Occupational and Environmental Medicine journal, the impact on mental health of a badly paid, poorly supported or short term job can be as harmful as no job at all.

Because being in work is associated with better mental health than unemployment, government policies have tended to focus on the risks posed by joblessness, without necessarily considering the impact the quality of a job may have. The researchers base their findings on seven separate studies of more than 7000 people. Not unexpectedly, those who were unemployed had poorer mental health, overall, than those in work. But after taking into account a range of factors such as educational attainment and marital status, the mental health of those who were jobless was comparable to, or often better than, that of people in work, but in poor quality jobs.

Those in the poorest quality jobs experienced the sharpest decline in mental health over time. There was a direct linear association between the number of unfavorable working conditions experienced and mental health, with each additional adverse condition lowering the mental health score. And the health benefits of finding a job after a period of worklessness depended on the quality of the job. Job quality in fact predicted the mental health score.

"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 researchers concluded, "but psychosocial job quality is a pivotal factor that needs to be considered in the design and delivery of employment and welfare policy."

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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