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Job Insecurity Is Toxic to Health

Precarious employment, like unemployment, undermines health.

Key points

  • Job insecurity is on the rise.
  • Gig employment should come with a health warning.
  • Unemployed people have a greater biological health risk compared to those who are employed.
  • Those with greater job insecurity have the same biological health risk as those who are unemployed.
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Employment contracts
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Job insecurity is on the rise, with many jobs linked to short-terms contracts, freelancing, and the gig economy, including zero-hour contracts. These types of jobs may be better than being unemployed, but with no guarantees around income, holiday or sick pay, they can be highly stressful. Indeed, it is not hard to see how the precarious working conditions they offer can be damaging for health: If one has to excessively worry about the pay check, or next contract, or you cannot plan for the future, there is likely to be high distress experienced by individuals in these positions.

Relevant to the issue is a piece of research on the biological health implications of such job insecurity that I was involved in a few years back. This work was led by Dr Rachel Sumner and colleagues when she was based at the University of Gloucestershire in the UK.

What did this research examine and find?

In short, this research wanted to extend on the work demonstrating that unemployment is toxic for health. Previous research had found that being unemployed, compared to being employed, is more damaging biologically, physically, and mentally for health. In this paper, we argued that precarity of employment is equally toxic for biological health.

To test this, we used the Understanding Society in the UK dataset, where we selected individuals based on their employment status (unemployed, full-time employed, self-employed, and temporary employed) to see whether they differed on levels of inflammatory cytokines, such as C-reactive protein and fibrinogen. These cytokines are some of the likely biological mechanisms behind the association between unemployment and heart disease.

While there were no group differences for C-reactive protein, we found that those unemployed had higher levels of fibrinogen compared to those who were employed, putting them at a health disadvantage. However, when we probed the data some more, we found that the level of fibrinogen in those on precarious contracts (part-time/temporary contracts) were similar to those seen in the unemployed group, implying that, despite having higher incomes, they had the same biological health risk as those who were unemployed.

What is important about this research?

It is important for several reasons. One, previously it was assumed that employment was health-protective. But this study challenges the dogma and implies that not all employment confers a health advantage. Particularly, we find that precarious employment is toxic for health! Second, given the rise of job insecurity, policy makers and employers need to advocate for better working conditions, stronger laws, and supports for those in such situations.


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