Having any job at all is better than being unemployed, right?

“Bad work just doesn’t fit in 2017!” Those are the words of Matthew Taylor, head of the Government’s recent review of modern work practices, who has called on politicians to make “all work good.” In an interview with the BBC, Mr Taylor, said that, as well as being bad for productivity and the economy, poor quality jobs were bad for people’s health and well-being. Recent research from Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester has added further weight to those claims, finding that unemployed people who move into poor quality work have worse health than their peers who remain out of work. He explains more about the research findings and how they challenge the idea that having any job is good for your health.

There is considerable evidence to show that being out of work isn’t good for our health and that being in work can bring us a range of benefits, not just financial. It follows, then, that a move out of unemployment and into work is likely to be good for us, but does that hold true if the job we go into is a bad one?

Using rich social, economic and health data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), our research examined the stress levels of a group of unemployed people aged 30-75, some of whom moved into poor quality jobs, some into good jobs and some who remained unemployed.

We also looked to see if any other factors, including their health at the outset of our study, had any bearing on the likelihood of them moving into a poor or good quality job.

Twelve biomarkers

As well as physical measurements such as height, weight and blood pressure, and self-reported information on their physical and mental health, some participants in the study gave blood samples. These could be tested for a range of markers, high levels of which might indicate diabetes, heart or kidney disease, acute or chronic stress. In total, we had 12 separate biomarkers, providing us with a comprehensive picture of participants’ health and an overall measurement of their stress, something referred to as their allostatic load.

How much people earned, how secure their job was and their working environment were all considered, in order to get a sense of the quality of their employment. Participants were asked how satisfied they were at work, how anxious or worried they felt about their job, how much control they had at work and whether they thought they might lose their job in the coming 12 months.

The people studied were divided into four groups:

  • Remained unemployed
  • Employed in a good quality job
  • Employed in a job with one poor quality measure
  • Employed with at least two poor quality measures

Stress levels

When we looked at the stress levels of the different groups, a clear pattern emerged. Unsurprisingly, people who moved out of unemployment and into a good job had the lowest levels of stress. People who went from being unemployed to working in a bad job (with more than two poor quality job measures) had the highest stress levels. These were 1.5 times higher than for those people who remained unemployed.

We took into consideration a host of other factors that might have had some role in propelling an unemployed person into a good or bad job, but even when we looked at their health at the outset of the study, this did not really play a role, other than to note that the people in better health moved into both good and bad jobs. In other words it wasn’t simply that people already in poor health were moving into the worse jobs.

Although numbers for this research were relatively small, the methods and analysis were extremely robust and we can, with some confidence, challenge the widespread belief that any employment, even poor quality work, is better for our health and wellbeing than being unemployed.

The findings serve to illuminate research published by the RSA and Populus recently, showing that three out of four people think we should do more as a country to improve the quality of work. Even more telling was the contrast between the over two thirds who think we can make all work fair and decent, and the less than one in ten who think this is already the case.

Making good work matter

Mr Taylor makes the case that “good work matters” and the RSA’s social media campaign #GoodWorkIs is a laudable effort to engage the wider public in a discussion about what good work looks like.

However, he, like many others, has said that the “worst work status for health is unemployment”. Our research shows that’s not necessarily the case, and our findings, together with more research in this area, should be considered carefully as strategies are hopefully developed to make his call to “make all work good” a reality not a pipedream, especially in the current political climate.

Re-employment, job quality, health and allostatic load biomarkers: Prospective evidence from the UK Household Longitudinal Study is research by Tarani Chandola and Nan Zhang and is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

 

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