Constriction worker

Is temporary employment bad for your health?

How is the health of those in insecure jobs affected by their working lives? Rachel Sumner and colleagues* have discovered some types of work may be just as strongly linked with poor health as unemployment is.

It’s long been acknowledged that there’s a link between unemployment and poor health. A recent Government Green Paper put it starkly:

“People who are unemployed have higher rates of mortality and a lower quality of life. This is an injustice that we must address.”

But is any job really better than no job? Or could some types of employment actually be linked just as strongly to poor health?

We looked at the issue using data from the Understanding Society study, which took blood samples from more than 4500 people aged between 16 and 64 who were either working or unemployed in 2010 and 2011– we excluded those who were retired, homemaking, not working due to incapacity or in education.

Overall, 7.6 per cent of our sample were unemployed. Amongst the employed, 81.8 per cent were permanently employed, 5.3 per cent were temporarily employed and 12.9 per cent were self-employed.

Health indicators

These samples were used to show whether the study participants had raised levels of fibrinogen or C-reactive protein (CRP), both of which are inflammatory markers and are associated with increased risk of heart disease. Healthy lifestyles decrease CRP levels, while obesity, physical inactivity and smoking increase them.

We compared the levels of these markers in those who were unemployed, permanently employed, temporarily employed and self-employed. We took into account a range of individual, social and health factors which might also influence the levels of these markers.

We didn’t find links between employment status and levels of CRP – but we did find links with fibrinogen.

We looked at how the levels of fibrinogen in different types of employee compared with those who were unemployed. And while those in permanent jobs or self-employed had lower levels of this marker, those in temporary work had similar levels to the unemployed.

So, not all types of work are equally beneficial in health terms – and in particular, temporary work would seem to be linked with worse health than other types. Indeed, in health terms we may actually be just as well off being unemployed as we are in an insecure job.

Why does this matter? It matters because less stable types of employment have grown in recent decades, with many workers employed on fixed-term contracts and experiencing uncertain job conditions. This has already been shown to have negative psychological consequences.

And since the recent global recession, which happened just before our data was collected, both unemployment and temporary employment have expanded. The European Union has a higher temporary employment rate than the OECD average  – 14.2 per cent compared with 11.2 per cent in 2016.

Levels of temporary employment in the UK are lower than the EU average – just six per cent in 2017 and four per cent in 2019  – but temporary employment has become more common since the financial crisis, particularly among young people. The rate of young people in the UK going into precarious employment has already resulted in poorer mental health.

Lessons for policymakers

If temporary employment is associated with an increased risk of mortality then earlier research which has simply compared unemployment with employment has not captured the complexities of the situation.

In conclusion, our findings would suggest there is little difference between the health effects of temporary employment and unemployment, using these particular indicators.  And given the continuing rise of precarious modes of employment across developed countries, this has significant implications for public health. Policymakers should encourage employers to expand the use of permanent contracts.

Unemployment, employment precarity, and inflammation, by Rachel C. Sumner, Rachel Bennett, Ann-Marie Creaven and Stephen Gallagher, is published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Rachel Sumner and Rachel Bennett are based at the School of Natural & Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, United Kingdom; Ann-Marie Creaven and Stephen Gallagher are at the Health Research Institute, Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, Ireland.

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