Job Fears Tied To Health Woes

By Jennifer Huget, Special
The Washington Post

Uncertainty Takes Worse Toll Than Layoffs, Study Finds

May 4, 2006

Getting laid off or fired, as too many folks in the Washington area know, can rank with divorce, death of a loved one and serious illness as one of life's biggest blows. But the mere prospect of losing your job, finds a new study, may damage your mental and physical health still more.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have painted a gloomy portrait of lives lived under the threat -- real or perceived -- of involuntary loss of employment. Assistant professor of sociology Sarah Burgard drew her data from a 16-year nationwide survey, funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Americans' Changing Lives survey questioned more than 3,600 adults on topics ranging from employment history to health-related behaviors every few years from 1986 to 2002.

Evaluating participants' self-reports on their physical and mental condition, Burgard and her colleagues concluded that chronic job insecurity -- an employee's ongoing perception that his job might be at risk -- was more strongly linked to poor health and depression than was actual job loss or a brush with life-threatening illness. Medical psychologist Joseph Mancusi, president of the Center for Organizational Excellence in Sterling, said Burgard's findings are "not surprising."

"It's the unrelenting nature of stress that ultimately causes damage," he said research has shown. "If you're fired," Mancusi said, "you have some things you can do. You can go into action and cope." But when you feel insecure in your job for a long period, he said, "You can't cope. You're in constant response. You keep revisiting [the problem], but there's no relief. That sends your blood pressure up, and the chemistry of your body and brain changes." Over time, he explains, that stress leads to real physical and mental health problems, often starting with sleeplessness, which is tied to many physical ailments and which can damage the immune system, opening the door to illness. Burgard said she conducted the study to satisfy her curiosity about whether "industry and job changes [in the United States and elsewhere] may be related to people's health."

To answer that question, she focused on data from workers who were under 60 -- and not ready to retire -- and who were employed in both 1986 and 1989. Burgard divided survey participants into two broad categories: those who said they felt somewhat or very worried about losing their jobs and those who had few such concerns. She also identified those who had personality traits (such as neuroticism, or a tendency to worry) that made them more likely to fret about potential job loss and adjusted her reading of the data accordingly.

Survey participants were asked to rate their health on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "excellent," and 5 being "poor." Burgard, who presented her findings last weekend at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Los Angeles, found that workers who felt insecure about their jobs in both 1986 and 1989 reported more symptoms of depression -- restless sleep, poor appetite and sadness, for instance -- and physical ill health than others. That relationship held true even when workers suffered real health crises or job losses during the interval. The phenomenon was most pronounced among African American workers (in whom job insecurity was linked to more reports of symptoms of depression) and among people working in private-sector jobs (where those feeling job insecurity reported worse physical health than their public-sector counterparts).

The implications were worrisome, Burgard said, given the trend toward continued downsizing and mergers of companies.

"This study indicates that it may be necessary to push back the boundaries of those we consider vulnerable in the world of work from just those who are involuntarily displaced from their jobs, to include people who are chronically worried about such an event," Burgard noted in an e-mail. "This could mean that policymakers need to think about the health-care costs and productivity losses that could occur in workforces composed of a rising number of insecure employees."

That, in turn, she wrote, may spell a need for programs for "chronically insecure workers that are similar to some of the more successful interventions for workers who have lost their jobs, involving training in coping with the uncertainty and making practical decisions about reentry into a stable position."

Mancusi said employers and managers can do much to help keep workers healthy even if job threats loom. A good first step, he said, is keeping people informed about what's going on. "In any relationship, if you don't know where you stand, you'll be under stress," he said. "Some bosses embargo information that, if people had it, would lead to lower stress." Offering employees information about impending layoffs or office relocations, for instance, rather than letting rumors circulate, allows workers to "make a response and deal with it," a means of taking control that can reduce stress and the toll it takes on health, Mancusi said.

Burgard suggests that policymakers may also "need to think about how to reduce the threat associated with job loss in the U.S. Currently there are serious repercussions for many job losers' immediate economic stability and long-term performance in the labor market. If the consequences were not so devastating, chronic fears about job loss may lose some of their negative impact on health."

Finally, Burgard observes, "This research suggests that the contemporary trends toward nonstandard employment relationships and nonpermanent jobs may not be benign changes. The implication of these trends for worker health should be an important focus of continued study."