Tag Archives: Recession

Out of work and overweight: Think again.

There’s a widely held preconception that people who are out of work are overweight, perpetuated by the media and, indeed, reinforced by some academic studies. But recent robust evidence throws a whole new light on things and indicates that unemployed people are in fact much more likely to be underweight, and less likely to be overweight, than their peers who have not recently been unemployed. Amanda Hughes from the Institute for Social and Economic Research explains how she came to question narratives about benefit claimants being lazy and overweight and go on to undertake research she believes provides a more accurate picture.

While I was doing my PhD, I volunteered at a foodbank, and noticed that there were more people coming in who were painfully thin than too heavy. Some had not eaten that day or the day before. Others had walked for two hours to get there, because paying for a return bus journey was out of the question.

Of course, not all people who are out of work turn to food banks, and not all people who turn to foodbanks are unemployed. But that experience got me thinking: have researchers and public health officials been so concerned with obesity that they have missed a crucial part of the story? If weight loss or weight gain can occur during unemployment depending on personal circumstances, might there be an overlooked ‘U-shaped’ association of unemployment and body weight, with excess obesity and excess underweight among jobseekers?

We know that risk of dying is higher for jobseekers than for employed peers, and it is often assumed that increased overweight and obesity among jobseekers plays a role. But studies on the relationship of unemployment and body weight have been inconclusive; some document weight gain with unemployment, but others suggest weight loss. However, previous studies have compared only average effects – average change in body weight following job loss, or average differences between unemployed people and controls, and may have missed a more complicated ‘U-shaped’ association.

Working age BMI

Using Understanding Society, a longitudinal, nationally representative survey of more than 40,000 UK households, my colleague Meena Kumari and I were able to look at the BMI (body mass index) of 10,737 working-age adults between 2010 and 2012.

What was different about our study, was that we did not assume unemployment would impact BMI in the same direction for everyone. Rather, we allowed for a simultaneously raised risk among jobseekers of both underweight and obesity, by comparing the probabilities of being underweight, overweight, and obese between current jobseekers, recent jobseekers, and people who had not been unemployed since the start of the survey (the control group). To isolate the impact of unemployment itself, we took into account other factors such as demographics, chronic health conditions and mental health, smoking and physical activity.

A small proportion (0.7 per cent) of the people in our study who were employed were classed as underweight (i.e. had a BMI below 18.5). But for those in our sample who were unemployed, the proportion shot up to almost 4 per cent. This pattern remained when we took into account factors such as their education, gender, smoking, overall health, physical activity and alcohol consumption.

Certain groups were especially at risk: there were more extreme effects for longer-term unemployed people, for men, and people from lower-income households, suggesting household reserves or the support of family members may act as a sort of buffer against weight-loss effects. At the same time, currently unemployed people were much less likely to be overweight than peers who had not recently been unemployed (29 per cent v 40 per cent).

We did find that unemployed people were more likely to be obese, perhaps suggesting changes in dietary quality following unemployment towards energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. However, this was only the case for non-smokers, which might reflect competing priorities between tobacco, food and other essentials for smokers on severely restricted budgets.

Quantitative evidence

Together, these results point to a complex picture in which jobseekers, depending on the complexities of individual lives, are at increased risk of both underweight and obesity, each with their own associated health risks.

The elevated underweight and reduced overweight among current jobseekers are quantitative evidence that many unemployed people are not eating enough in simple caloric terms. Despite the political importance of this question, evidence of this effect has so far been fairly anecdotal.

Our results make an important contribution to research trying to explain the increased risk of chronic illness and mortality for unemployed people – suggesting that, at least in contemporary Britain, being underweight may contribute to that much more than previously realised.

At the very least, I hope our evidence will be used to challenge preconceptions and debunk myths about unemployment. It has implications for the way politicians, journalists and the wider public perceive unemployment, and for anyone concerned with the health effects of being out of work.

Unemployment, underweight and obesity: Findings from Understanding Society is research by Amanda Hughes and Meena Kumari at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, and published in the journal Preventive Health.

You can also read an article about this research in The Guardian.

Photo credit: At Work in the Capital Area Foodbank Warehouse, Geoff Livingston

Out of work again? The psychological impacts of repeated unemployment

Being unemployed is bad for our mental well-being, but if we lose our job more than once does the psychological blow lessen in some way? Researchers Cara Booker from the University of Essex and Amanda Sacker at the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL used the long-running British Household Panel Survey to examine the psychological well-being of people who have repeatedly lost their jobs. Their findings show that our employment history makes a difference and could have implications for welfare to work initiatives from Governments looking to get people back to work.

Continuous employment may be what is best for us, but of course life is not always that straightforward and, at any given time, a significant proportion of the population will be out of work. This could be because we choose to take time out to undertake training or to have a family. We may fall ill or be made redundant.

The world of work is also becoming more flexible. Fewer people are staying with the same firm for long periods of time and more people are moving from contract to contract or job to job, sometimes with spells of unemployment in between.

At the same time, the Government wants to get more people off benefits and into work and is looking to make its Work Programme more effective.

Using 17 years of data collected from the participants in the British Household Panel Survey (1991-2008), we looked at any individual who had reported at least one spell of unemployment. Of these 1,642 participants, 82 per cent were unemployed once, 15 per cent twice and 3 per cent three or more times.

Mental health score

Participants were asked a range of questions about their mental health and answers to these were used to allot a score with 0-11 indicating good psychological health and 12 or more indicating stress or anxiety that could lead to ill health. The time periods before and after a spell of unemployment were also taken into account because job loss isn’t generally something that happens suddenly and there can be weeks or months building up to it.

Looking at the group as a whole, we found their psychological well-being was generally poorer during all spells of unemployment compared with when they were not unemployed, but there was no evidence of a lowering or increasing of the effect from one spell of unemployment to the next.

When we dug deeper into participants’ prior work history, however, we saw some differences between those people who had previously been ‘economically inactive’ (voluntarily not working e.g. to look after family or study) and those who had been working.

Those who prior to being employed had been ‘voluntarily’ not working suffered poorer psychological well-being after they went on to lose their job but became notably worse in the third spell of unemployment.

The previously employed group’s psychological well-being also took a knock after losing a job once and then again, but, by the third time there was no change, a possible indication that the individual is somehow adapting or getting used to dealing with the ‘shock’ of becoming unemployed.

When we compared levels of psychological well-being between these two groups, they were notably lower among the previously employed at unemployment spells one and two, but this was reversed at spell three.

Employment history matters

So only when we took into consideration being economically inactive as opposed to employed, did a slightly clearer picture emerge around this question of whether people adapt to the ‘shock’ of unemployment, with those previously employed seeming to adapt and those previously economically inactive becoming increasingly sensitive to it. These findings were given further weight when we looked at retrospective employment histories before the BHPS began.

One explanation for this is that those who come from an employed background tend to find work again after each unemployment spell they experience, so they become less anxious about finding another job. The economically inactive, meanwhile, seem to find it harder to enter and re-enter the job market which could account for increased anxiety with more attempts to sign up as ‘unemployed and seeking work’.

Household income also played a role with those who were economically inactive on higher than average incomes experiencing worse psychological well-being than their less off counterparts when making an unsuccessful attempt to enter employment.

In its recent Welfare-to-Work report, the Work and Pensions Committee pointed out that key to the programme’s success was providing unemployed people with “the right help at the right time” and a better understanding of the barriers and characteristics that prevent a swift return to work. A better understanding of the impacts of repeated spells of unemployment on people’s well-being would seem to resonate here.

It is also clear that good quality, secure employment opportunities with long term prospects are key to people’s health and happiness.

Psychological well-being and reactions to multiple unemployment events: adaptation or sensitisation? is research by Cara Booker and Amanda Sacker and is publishes in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

Photo credit: Kathryn Decker


Can unemployment kill – Podcast

Our first blog showcased recent research from the team at ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies about the links between long term unemployment and stress markers linked to killer diseases. If you were interested in that, you can also listen on Soundcloud to researcher Amanda Hughes discussing the research for the ICLS Podcast.

Can unemployment kill?

At the height of the recent recession around 2.7 million people were unemployed, and youth unemployment accounted for nearly 40 per cent of that total. Given growing evidence that unemployment is linked to long term illness and increased mortality, we can expect health implications for those affected. In a week when unemployment rose for the first time in over a year, Amanda Hughes presents new evidence from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies on the links between unemployment and killer diseases such as heart disease.

In 1984 a study was published which had linked census data to mortality records and found that men unemployed in the week of the 1971 census were 36 per cent more likely to have since died than men of the same age who had been in work. Accounting for differences in social background only explained part of the excess, raising the question: can unemployment kill, and if so how?

That unemployment might damage health was not a new idea. Marie Jahoda’s research on unemployment in the 1930s had shown that the non-financial benefits of work, such as defining aspects of status and identity and providing regular social contact, are for many people crucial to mental wellbeing. And since job loss usually brings a sharp drop in income, it is intuitive that unemployment could affect physical health by reducing quality of diet or opportunities for exercise.

But there tends to be more scepticism as to whether serious physical illness or mortality could be causally influenced by the undoubtedly stressful experience of unemployment. Might those unemployed men have developed serious illness when employed, lost their jobs as a result, and then died from their illness? Or might their increased mortality simply be caused by unemployed people smoking and drinking more? In neither case could it be claimed that unemployment itself has caused any deaths.

New approach

Since the 1980s, the tools available to scientists researching the health impacts of social conditions have moved on considerably. One new approach involves molecules called ‘inflammatory markers’ which circulate in the bloodstream and appear to be influenced by stressful experiences.

Elevated concentrations have been found in the recently bereaved and caregivers; inflammatory markers are also typically higher for people of disadvantaged socioeconomic position as measured by income or occupational social class. Crucially, raised concentrations of these molecules are linked to atherosclerosis and predict heart disease, presenting a possible causal pathway between a stressful social environment and increased mortality.

It was for this reason that we wanted to see if two inflammatory markers – C-reactive protein and fibrinogen – were elevated in jobseekers compared to employed counterparts.

We used the Health Survey for England and Scottish Health Survey, annual government surveys used to track changes in the health of both countries’ populations. To isolate elevations in these molecules due to unemployment-related stress, we considered a number of additional factors beyond participants’ age and gender.

To rule out elevations due to serious illness predating job loss, we considered whether participants had a long-term illness of any type. To rule out elevations caused by disadvantaged socioeconomic position more generally, we took into account housing tenure and occupational social class from current or most recent job.

Finally, to test whether elevations might be explained by worse health-related behaviours of jobseekers, we took into account participants’ smoking, alcohol consumption and body mass index.

Stress markers

In our sample of over 23,000 men and women of working age, unemployed people had elevated circulating levels of both molecules even after consideration of these factors. These differences were moreover clinically relevant, since unemployed participants were 40 per cent more likely to have C-reactive protein over 3mg/L, the level at which cardiovascular risk becomes elevated.

Effects were not uniform across the population. Firstly, older jobseekers (48-64) were more affected than younger jobseekers. This might indicate that unemployment is more stressful for jobseekers facing age discrimination, or equipped with outdated skills.

Since older jobseekers will have accumulated more unemployment over their lifetimes than younger counterparts, it could alternatively indicate that long-term or repeated unemployment is especially damaging to this aspect of health.

Secondly, we found substantial differences in results by country, with much greater elevations in both molecules for jobseekers in Scotland than in England. Data from the Labour Force Survey and the British Household Panel Study show that during the years of data collection (1998-2010) unemployment was higher in Scotland than England, and unemployment spells on average longer, which suggests two possible explanations.

Firstly, the jobseekers in Scotland may have been unemployed for longer, or had more recent unemployment spells, than English counterparts. Secondly, unemployment could be more stressful in times and places where the background rate is higher, since jobseekers will rationally perceive their prospects for re-employment as worse.

Since these surveys only collect information from people at one point in time, it was not possible in this analysis to investigate effects in the context of people’s employment histories. But unpicking these explanations will be crucial if we are to better understand the conditions under which unemployment is most likely to damage health, and which groups are most at risk.

Crucially, given last week’s news of a 21,000 rise in unemployment for the first time in a year  to 1.7 million people, policy makers interested in the long term health of the population should not divert their gaze from its wider consequences.

Photo credit: Kate Hiscock

Further information

Amanda Hughes is a Senior Research Officer at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

Elevated inflammatory biomarkers during unemployment: modification by age and country in the UK is research by Amanda Hughes, Anne McMunn, Mel Bartley and Meena Kumari and is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.


Unemployment and mortality in the OPCS Longitudinal study is research by K.A Moser, A.J Fox, and D.R. Jones, and is published in the Lancet.

Unemployment durations: evidence from the British Household Panel Survey is research by K. Long and is published in Economic & Labour Market Review.