Employment and Mental Health
Employment and Mental Health
Issue 26 – January 2011Author: Sarah Keenan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Employment influences community well-being and individual levels of distress.
- Fair wages and meaningful work are as important as whether someone is employed or not.
- Poor or financially inadequate employment has similar negative psychological effects to unemployment.
- Adequate employment is important as it reduces poverty and provides a daily structure and collective identity.
Implications for practice
- It is important to talk about, and report on how inadequate employment effects mental health.
- Supporting people who are unemployed or inadequately employed in accessing social support can be an important factor in protecting mental health.
Employment in contextEmployment is a complex political and economic issue which impacts significantly on poverty and community well-being. It also has a powerful effect on the well-being and recovery of the people we work with. The impact that employment or unemployment has on someone is also influenced by other circumstances in their life, such as their gender, age, length of time unemployed, social support and family role. Generally research finds that unemployment is detrimental to mental health1. The most obvious answer to why employment is important is money. Poverty is a powerful and disabling side effect of unemployment and has long term influences on social opportunities and levels of psychological distress1.
Financially Adequate EmploymentEmployment is often seen as positive and unemployment as negative, however, the situation is more complicated than this and research has tended to ignore the experiences of a large swathe of the employed community who are inadequately employed. Adequate employment is multifaceted and can relate both to personal and financial fulfilment. However, research has tended to focus on whether employment is financially adequate rather than other possible definitions. When people are financially inadequately employed they show more similarities with the unemployed population than those adequately employed. This has been looked at in terms of levels of depression2, alcohol abuse3 and self esteem4. This runs counter to the perspective that any sort of employment regardless of meaning or pay will automatically improve mental health.
The meaning and quality of employmentAs well as financially, another way of looking at the impact of employment is to consider the meaning (e.g. collective and individual purpose, does it fit with a person’s values) and quality of employment (e.g. how stressful, temporary work, lack of control, physically difficult environments)3. So it seems important for someone to be in meaningful employment and suited to their working environment as well as being adequately paid, if employment is to have beneficial effects on their mental health. Winefield et al. (1993)4 found that young people who were dissatisfied in their employment were consistently as worse off as their peers who were unemployed. Repper and Perkins (2003)5 highlight the importance of encouraging people who have experienced mental health problems into paid and meaningful employment and it is the meaning that needs attention. Whilst we may recognise that this is important for mental health, we are currently working in a climate where jobs are increasingly scarce and there is the danger of not considering the quality and meaning of employment.
Further Functions of EmploymentAs noted previously the function and meaning of a job are also important. Jahoda (1982)6 gave some of the following reasons as to why employment can be positive (alongside the financial aspects):
- Time structure – employment provides set times of engagement which provide a routine.
- Social contact – employment provides peer support and social connectedness with a work community.
- Collective purpose – employment necessitates a requirement to join with others to achieve a collective goal.
- Social identity/status – employment is a powerful aspect of social identity which often imbues social status and a position within a hierarchy.
Practical Implications and Final ThoughtsThe above highlights that supporting people into meaningful, supportive and financially rewarding employment can have significant positive effects on mental health. However, we also need to bear in mind that some people may not feel ready or have had negative experiences of employment. Further, some jobs might have detrimental effects on a person’s well being. The above highlights that where adequate and meaningful cannot be found, clients and workers should consider how the above functions of employment (structure, social contact, financial security, collective and individual purpose, social identity and daily activity etc) could be met in other ways. There are also limitations to what individual workers and clients can do regarding employment, as the issue also needs to be addressed at an economic, social and political level7. However, mental health researchers and practitioners can speak out about the links between inadequate employment (financially, meaning and quality) and mental health and attempt to avoid the dangers of seeing employment and unemployment simply as an individual problem, rather than the social issue it really is.
- Fryer, F. & Fagan, R. (2003).Toward a Critical Community Psychological Perspective on Unemployment and Mental Health Research. American Journal of Community Psychology, 32, 89 – 96.
- Dooley, D., Catalano, R., & Wilson, G. (1994). Depression and unemployment: Panel findings from the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22, 745 – 765.
- Dooley, D., Catalano, R., & Hough, R. (1992). Unemployment and Alcohol Disorder in 1910 and 1990: Drift versus social causation. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 65, 277- 290.
- Winefield, A. H., Tiggemann, M., Winefield, H. R., & Goldney, R. D. (1993). Growing up with Unemployment: A Longitudinal Study of its Psychological Impact. London: Routledge.
- Repper, J. & Perkins, R. (2003). Social Inclusion and Recovery. A model for mental health practice. Bailliere Tindall: London.
- Jahoda, M. (1982). Employment and Unemployment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Dooley, D. (2003). Unemployment, Underemployment, and Mental Health: Conceptualizing Employment Status as a Continuum. American Journal of Community Psychology, 32, 9 – 20.
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