In an ongoing series, the New York Times has been documenting significant changes in the American labor market. Few, if any, Americans still cling to the post-WWII myth of the single-breadwinner “company man” who devotes his life to a company, slowly climbing the rungs of internal promotion hierarchies, getting in return job security, health and pension benefits and a living wage. Yet, the “New American Job” portrayed in the NYT as unregulated, imposing erratic, part-time schedules, and for relatively little compensation, may feel to many like a betrayal of a certain social contract: work hard and you will make it. Like the land of opportunity, the white picket fence, and other American self-sustaining myths, it fuels our ambition and our drive to succeed. But what happens when the premise upon which it is based is no longer within reach of an increasing proportion of Americans?

Of course, the Great Recession is partly at fault here. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics data trends show, unemployment rates in 2009 and 2010 reached levels that had not been seen since the 1980s recession. But this recession hit an altogether different labor market than in the 1980s, which may have enduring consequences for workers’ mental health. Indeed, as Arne Kalleberg shows in Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarization and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, all jobs, whether good or bad, have grown increasingly precarious in the U.S. over the past forty years. And in and of itself, precariousness poses a risk to mental health.

As most Americans are employed in indefinite term contracts where the assumption is that you have a job unless you are laid off or chose to leave, measuring precariousness can be difficult. At the end of the 1990s, aware of this increasing trend, the BLS attempted to capture precariousness through a series of questions in the Current Population Survey, which provides most of the labor force data, including on unemployment. Unfortunately, these questions were not asked after 2005, so it is difficult to say how the Great Recession has affected precariousness. We do know that as of 2005, about 4.1 percent of the U.S. workforce—5.7 million American workers—held a position they believed to be temporary. Furthermore, another BLS report shows that employment in the temporary help industry more than doubled from 1990 to 2008.

Yet, as my colleagues and I have shown in an earlier paper, workers hired for temporary, contract, casual or fixed-term positions are at risk for increased symptoms of depression and psychological distress than similarly employed workers who are not in these fixed-term positions. The research, conducted using data from the 1979 U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, studied a cohort of individuals who were then between the ages of 14 and 21; subjects were surveyed annually or biannually until 2002. Individuals were surveyed about how frequently they experienced seven symptoms, all physiological markers of depression, such as lack of sleep or appetite. These answers were then coded, with a four indicating very frequent experience of a given symptom and zero signifying no experience. Temporary workers, even those who experienced steady employment in temporary positions, scored an average of 1.5 points higher than the rest of the population in all categories.

So what is the solution? Ironically, it appears that stiffer labor force regulation may in fact backfire, as employers often create temporary positions to sidestep the legal requirement of providing fringe benefits for permanent workers. Yet, although employers use these positions in order to cut costs and increase efficiency, the absenteeism caused by employee strain may in fact do just the opposite. According to Mental Health America, “left untreated, depression is as costly as heart disease or AIDS to the US economy, costing over $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity”.

In sum, then, those jobs that are a detriment to employees’ mental health are also likely to post low-efficiency rates. While a job may yet be better than no job, the bottom line  for employers is that it makes good economic sense to care for one’s workforce, including through more secure employment.

See references for more information:

Bureau of Labor Statistics Data. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2012, from

Greenhouse, S. (2012, October 27). A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift for American Workers. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Kalleberg, Arne L. (2011). Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarization and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States. New York, NY, Russell Sage Foundation, 292 pp.

Medina, J. (2012, July 22). In California, Warehouse Industry Is Expanding. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Mental Health America: Depression in the Workplace. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2012, from

Quesnel-Vallée, A., DeHaney, S., & Ciampi, A. (2010). Temporary work and depressive symptoms: A propensity score analysis. Social Science & Medicine, 70(12), 1982–1987. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.02.008

Tian Luo, Amar Mann, and Richard Holden, “The expanding role of temporary help services from 1990 to 2008”, Monthly Labor Review, Aug. 2010.

About the Author

Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, Ph.D.

Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, at McGill University.

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