Economic crisis taking toll on worker health, IWH research suggests

Work insecurity and unemployment can have a negative effect on the physical and mental health of workers. This is according to new research and analysis from the Institute for Work & Health.

How has the economic crisis of the past year affected the health of workers? Recent work by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) sheds some insight into this complex issue.

Workers who have kept their jobs during the recession may have had to face more unpaid overtime, wage freezes or cutbacks, roll- backs of benefits and general job insecurity – heightening a trend in the labour force that has already been occurring in recent decades. Over time, such insecurities have negative effects on how workers rate their health, according to research by Dr. Heather Scott-Marshall, which was published online in August by Social Indicators Research (e-pub ahead of print: DOI 10.1007/s11205-009-9480-3).

In particular, workers who deal with long hours of unpaid overtime, low wages and no raises year after year steadily report worse health. The economic crisis may exacerbate these types of insecurities, as cutbacks in organizations are frequently manifested at the level of workers’ jobs, says Scott-Marshall, a post-doctoral fellow at IWH.

For those who have lost their jobs – and their numbers are high, with a September 2009 unemployment rate just above nine per cent in Ontario – their mental health may also be affected, which can have implications for future re-employment prospects. IWH has explored this topic in its most recent Issue Briefing (see below).

Unpaid overtime leads to poor self-reported health

Scott-Marshall looked at how work-related insecurity affected the health of more than 2,300 workers over five years from 1999 to 2004. Work-related insecurity included low pay, no annual pay increases or job promotions, lack of pension coverage or union protection, and working long overtime hours.

Using information collected through Statistics Canada’s Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID), she began with a group of healthy workers, who rated their health as good to excellent in 1999. She also broke down her findings to look at patterns among several groups: women, older workers aged 45 to 54 and visible minorities, all of whom make up an increasing percentage of the Canadian labour force.

The most striking finding concerned the effect of overtime on health. When workers reported working more unpaid overtime hours than the average for a given year, their self-reported health declined more rapidly over time than  the self-reported health of workers who reported fewer unpaid overtime hours. (The average number of overtime hours per week ranged from 6.8 to 8.7 hours.)

The health of older workers who had no pension coverage also declined more rapidly over time than the health of older workers with pension benefits. So, too, did the health of workers earning low wages or having no annual pay increases compared to that of workers with higher wages or annual pay increases.

Workplace policies and practices matter to the health of employees, particularly in relation to how these policies and practices affect job quality, says Scott-Marshall.

Interestingly, she did not find any significant differences between men and women, although women were more likely to be in insecure work situations. Indeed, compared to men, women experienced less rapid declines in health over time.

Scott-Marshall’s study also shows that it is not just jobs considered insecure, such as part-time or contract work, that can affect health. Insecurity can affect individuals in employment arrangements typically defined as secure, such as full-time, permanent jobs, she says.

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At issue: How unemployment affects mental health

Since the Great Depression of the 1930s, research has consistently shown that becoming unemployed harms a worker’s mental health. The impact is larger on certain groups; in particular, on men and on workers aged 30 to 55. And people with mental health problems are more likely than others to become unemployed.

For these reasons, it’s important not only to help laid-off workers find new jobs quickly, but also to help workers manage mental distress, says IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Ron Saunders, who wrote the latest Issue Briefing summarizing key research on this topic.

Mental health symptoms can hinder a person from functioning or working. These symptoms can result from financial stresses as well as non-financial stresses, such as a loss of self-esteem and social contacts.

This is why adequate access to employment insurance benefits, and adequate benefit levels, are so important when a job is lost, says Saunders. By reducing the financial impact of unemployment, such benefits may help prevent mental health problems and ultimately facilitate re-employment.

The full Issue Briefing can be downloaded from

Source: At Work, Issue 58, Fall 2009: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto