University graduates working below their skills more likely to report declining health, study finds

August 9, 2005 (Toronto, ON) — If you have a university education but can’t seem to find a job that matches your skills, your health may suffer, according to a new study by researchers at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto.

We found that university graduates who were overqualified for their jobs were twice as likely to report declining health over the next four years compared to graduates who were working at jobs which matched their skills, says the lead researcher Peter Smith.

It’s likely that more and more Canadians will find themselves in this situation, the study revealed. That’s because while the percentage of the labour force with a university degree has doubled over the past 25 years, the demand for educated workers has not kept pace.

Smith and colleague Dr. John Frank, past scientific director of the Institute of Population and Public Health at the Canadian Institute’s for Health Research, analyzed data on almost 3,000 individuals who had rated themselves as being in excellent or very good health when they took part in the Canadian National Population Health Survey between 1994 and 2000.

Respondents were asked what level of education they had achieved – a bachelor’s degree or higher, a post-secondary diploma, some secondary (high school) education or no high school at all. They were also asked the type of occupation they were working in. The education and occupational skill requirements were used to group respondents into those who were underqualified, overqualified or qualified for their current job.

We already know that people who have completed university tend to report better health than their peers with no post-secondary education – they typically earn higher incomes and also benefit from an accompanying sense of self-esteem and mastery of skills, Smith says.

But it would appear that the greatest health benefits occur when a person works in a job that matches his or her education level.

We found evidence that the gains in self-reported health usually associated with a higher education are eroded over time if the labour market can’t accommodate graduates’ career expectations, Smith says.

In the past, young people who earned a university degree likely worked in an entry-level position for a couple of years before finding a job that better matched their qualifications.

Given the current trend, we can predict that graduates will have to spend more and more time – many years in some cases – in jobs for which they are overqualified, says Smith.

The mismatch between educational attainment and jobs may explain recent reports about declining health among immigrants who come to Canada with advanced degrees but cannot find a job in their field. Many are driving taxis or working in the service industry to survive, he adds.

Smith says they did not find a similar link between declining health and job skills among people without a university degree. He suggests that those with less formal education may have fewer ‘expectations’ they will get a “good job” and other stresses and pressures outside of work, may make having a ’good job’ of lesser consequence to their health status.

Do the findings mean young people should give up on the idea of higher education?

Absolutely not, says Smith. University should be viewed as a life experience that provides many benefits to the individual and not just a key to a good job. Research shows that, overall, people with a university education are generally better off.

He thinks employers and policy-makers need to find ways to make better use of the educated workforce to possibly avoid some of the health problems linked to mismatches in skill and job requirements. For example, employers might give these workers more autonomy in how they do their job or provide them with opportunities outside of their core responsibilities which use their skills.

The results of the study were published in the August issue of International Journal of Epidemiology.

About the Institute for Work & Health

IWH is an independent, not-for-profit research organization that aims to protect and improve the health of working people. Recognized as one of the top five occupational health and safety research centres in the world, the Institute provides practical and relevant findings on the prevention of work injury and disability to policy-makers, workers, employers, clinicians, and health, safety and disability management professionals.

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