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Why having a bad job is worse for your health than having no job at all

A new study shows the link between the quality of a job and mental health.

Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI / Getty Images

If you work in a low-paying job you hate, you are likely more chronically stressed out than if you were just unemployed. That's the conclusion of a new study from researchers at the University of Manchester.


Focusing on how job transitions affect health, sociologists monitored 1116 unemployed British adults who didn't have a job in 2009-2010, and discovered that those who ended up finding good jobs had improved mental health. But those who found stressful, badly paid or unstable jobs showed no improvement in their mental health and, in fact, physical indicators of chronic stress were worse in such people than in those who stayed unemployed.

The scientists, led by the study author Professor Tarani Chandola, followed up with the study participants for a few years, noting their self-reported health and chronic stress levels as indicated by hormones and other stress-linked biomarkers.

The goal for Chandola was to find out if any job is better than no job. She focused on job quality as defined by pay, job security, job satisfaction and levels of anxiety.

​"Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed, said Chandola. "Just as good work is good for health, we must also remember that poor quality work can be detrimental to health."

As she described her process in an interview with ResearchGate, to gauge stress levels, Chandola focused on biomarkers "based on elevated levels of hormones, inflammatory, metabolic and cardiovascular levels such as higher blood pressure and cholesterol."

"I was trying to test the common assumption that any job is better than no job, " said Chandola. "I have been working on work, stress, and health for a number of years, and people accept that having a stressful job is not good for your physical and mental health. But most people then say, “but at least you have a job,” with the implicit assumption that being unemployed is far worse for your health than having a stressful and poor quality job."

While the research involved British adults, Chandola said that a few studies in other countries like Australia showed similar results. Having a bad job is worse for your health than having no job at all. Of course, having no money at all can also be quite a stressful experience.

The key, says Chandola, is for people to understand whether their work could be making them ill. Maybe you don't need to leave it, but not working with your doctor and manager to improve how you deal with the job could be detrimental to you.

You can read the study here, in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

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