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Epidemic of job insecurity takes a major toll on worker health

  • Contact Diane Swanbrow
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Amid growing news of layoffs, outsourcing, corporate bankruptcies and downsizing, a University of Michigan study finds that feeling insecure about your job takes a toll on physical and mental health" whether you actually lose your job or not.

In fact, the health effects of job insecurity are at least as great as the health effects of a serious or life-threatening illness.

The study of job insecurity and health in the United States is being presented April 1 at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Los Angeles.

The study is based on an analysis of data from a nationally representative, longitudinal survey conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), and includes information on more than 1,000 men and women under the age of 60 who were interviewed twice, about three years apart.

"The strength of this study is that we not only have multiple measures of insecurity but we also have actual measures of job loss," said Sarah Burgard, a sociologist at the ISR and the lead author of the study.

Since only those who remained employed at both points in time were included in the analysis, the findings are not attributable to health problems related to actual job loss and extended unemployment.

The research also controlled for major health shocks that occurred during the three-year period, and measured respondents' level of neuroticism, to control for the tendency of highly neurotic people to give low ratings of their mental and physical health, and of their job security.

"How likely is it that during the next couple of years you will involuntarily lose your main job?" participants were asked. Those who said" very likely" or" somewhat likely" were considered insecure, while those who replied" not too likely" or" not at all likely" were considered secure.

About 25 percent of respondents reported feeling insecure about their jobs in at least one of the two interviews.

Burgard found that self-rated health was significantly lower for respondents who reported feeling insecure about their jobs. Compared to workers who felt secure at both interviews, those who were chronically insecure were about twice as likely to report physical health that was less than very good or excellent. She also found that private-sector employees were more vulnerable to the negative health effects of job insecurity than were public-sector employees.

Job insecurity took a particularly high toll on black workers, the researchers found. Blacks who were chronically insecure about their jobs were nearly three times as likely as insecure whites and more than four times as likely as secure whites to report very high depressive symptoms.

As the U.S. labor market increasingly adds more nonstandard jobs with reduced hours and benefits, offering employers the flexibility to hire and fire to meet demand, the study suggests some of the fallout for workers.

Other studies have found that at least some concern about the possibility of losing their job has begun to affect a larger and more diverse fraction of the population. As increased flexibility in the labor market leaves increasing numbers of workers at all levels with concerns about the future of their positions, and the potential consequences of job loss continue to be substantial, job insecurity will only grow as a potentially potent risk to population health.

"Policy-makers may want to attend to differences in the likely consequences for some groups of workers, including African Americans and those in the private sector," Burgard said.

Burgard's collaborators on the study are U-M researchers Jennie Brand and James House. Burgard and Brand were both supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars Program, and the data for the analysis were collected with support from grants from the National Institute on Aging and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigators in Health Policy Research Program. Burgard is also an assistant professor of sociology and an assistant professior of epidemiology at the U-M School of Public Health.

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, National Election Studies, Monitoring the Future Study, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Health and Retirement Study, and National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information./p>

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