Job Loss Takes a Toll on Mental Health

In an era of 9.7 percent unemployment, no one needs to be told that losing your job is bad for your bank account. But unemployment also undermines a less-obvious measure of well-being: mental health.

A new Gallup poll finds that a majority of unemployed and underemployed Americans describe themselves as "struggling." They're also more likely to report depression and feelings of sadness and worry than their employed counterparts.

Such psychological turmoil isn't surprising, said Harvey Brenner, a professor of public health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and Johns Hopkins University, who studies the relationships between economic trends and psychological well-being.

"The finding is very, very consistent that higher unemployment is related to higher incidence of serious mental disorder and depression," he said.

Job loss and sadness go hand-in-hand

Gallup questioned 40,000 adult Americans about their employment status, emotions and activities. People working full-time or content with a part-time schedule were counted as "employed," while those who were working part-time but wanted full-time work and those who were not working at all but wanted to be were labeled "underemployed."

Negative emotions were more common among the underemployed, 46 percent of whom reported feelings of worry and 27 percent of whom reported sadness. For the employed, those numbers were 29 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

In addition, 21 percent of the underemployed said they'd been told by a medical professional they had depression, a number that was just 12 percent for people who were employed.

Snapshot of the unemployed

The poll represents a snapshot in time and can't be used to determine if underemployment causes depression or if depressed people are more likely to lose their jobs. But longitudinal research — which follows the same people over many years — suggests that job loss does decrease psychological well-being, said David Dooley, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

"Our research finds that an adverse change in job situation does lead to an increase in symptoms of depression," Dooley said. High underemployment also causes an uptick in people's reports of sadness, he said. In other words, in bad times, everyone's mood takes a turn for the worse.

Factors such as age and education affect how people cope with job loss, Dooley said. For example, he's found that people in their early twenties are more likely to misuse alcohol after losing a job than people in their late twenties. That could be because age brings family obligations and responsibilities like home ownership, Dooley said, so older workers are less free to drown their sorrows. 

The bulk of unemployment research has been pessimistic, including a 1998 study from the University of Wales that found the unemployed in England and Wales were twice as likely to die from suicide as the employed. Research published this month in the journal Legal Medicine found that suicides in South Korea rise with unemployment, a finding replicated in many industrialized nations. Unemployment has also been correlated with lack of preventative medical care, low birth-weight babies and poor diet.

Perhaps the greatest danger of unemployment is that it tends to put people behind in the long run, said Johns Hopkins' Brenner.

"To the extent that people return to work after a period of lengthy unemployment, they tend to lose wages and benefits and long-term pensions and so forth," Brenner said. That loss causes a lag in socioeconomic status, which is the most powerful predictor of mortality across nations, he said.

Glass half-full perspective

If there's any silver lining to be found, Dooley said, it's that 42 percent of the underemployed told Gallup they were "thriving." That's 19 percentage points lower than the number of employed workers who were thriving, but it suggests that losing your job doesn't mean automatic psychological ruin, Dooley said.

Underemployment can give people time to reevaluate goals, get healthier and spend time with loved ones, he said, adding that the challenge for psychologists and policy-makers is to promote these positive adaptations.

"Unemployment can be a mixed bag. It can be a downright good thing if the job you're getting away from is extremely difficult and unpleasant," Dooley said. "It's not surprising that some people report that they're satisfied. They're finding useful and beneficial things to do with their increased time."

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.