Why is Unemployment so Hard on our Mental Health?

It’s a maze of disappointment.

In mid December of last year Mashable published an article called, “A bad job is harder on your mental health than being unemployed”  saying:

There’s a clear link between being engaged in “good work” and mental health. An important contribution to our understanding of this link has come from the Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey in Australia. It brings together a robust set of data that can be easily compared with other situations such as unemployment. The results, published by Peter Butterworth and colleagues at the Australian National University … shows unambiguously that the psychosocial quality of bad jobs is worse than unemployment. Butterworth looked at those moving from unemployment into employment and found that:

“Those who moved into optimal jobs showed significant improvement in mental health compared to those who remained unemployed. Those respondents who moved into poor-quality jobs showed a significant worsening in their mental health compared to those who remained unemployed.”

I’m not so much interested in the data but I’ll comment on it briefly and to do that let’s look at their methods and result:

Analysis of seven waves of data from 7,155 respondents of working age (44,019 observations) from a national household panel survey.

Overall, unemployed respondents had poorer mental health than those who were employed. However the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality. This pattern was evident in prospective models: those in the poorest quality jobs showed greater decline in mental health than those who were unemployed (B = 3.03, p<0.05). The health benefits of becoming employed were dependent on the quality of the job. Moving from unemployment into a high quality job led to improved mental health (mean change score of +3.3), however the transition from unemployment to a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed (−5.6 vs −1.0).

That seems like a good sampling and while I can’t comment on the statistical methods per se’ (too jargon filled for me and statistics aren’t my specialty, sorry) it makes intuitive sense to me that this’d be the case.

While you’re unemployed you can (potentially) do a bit more than you can when you’re employed. Not always and there are certainly cases for people who don’t have good support networks, are disabled, etc. who wouldn’t fit the situation I’m talking about and that’s worth keeping in mind for sure. But sometimes when you have a job you hate or you just don’t care for very much you can feel trapped in it.

Now, of course, people can feel trapped in poverty too, that’s certainly the case. But they aren’t the same feelings of being trapped because while you have a job you’re much more financially tied to it then you are when your’re unemployed. I mean, the whole point of being unemployed to some extent is that you don’t have many financial ties. So the feelings of being trapped when you’re unemployed is mostly ones to do with emotions than finances.

That doesn’t make it necessarily better or worse de facto but it does mean that these are two different types of phenomenons that shouldn’t be automatically conflated as probably producing similar effects in each case.

I know that having a good social network myself my time being “unemployed” hasn’t always been miserable and indeed it’s often been a good time to explore my other interests and see if I can make money outside the formal economy.

But again, I’m privileged. I’m a white dude who has a good family who is lucky enough to accept him as the eccentric person he is.

My family (my close family that is) doesn’t socially punish me for being autistic, being an anarchist, having atheistic views or much of anything that have to do with me. They’re curious and sometimes they’ll worry about me but that’s mostly because I have radical ideas about what society is and should be.I’m also privileged in that I live in a more stereotypical “liberal” part of the US that doesn’t discriminate as harshly on atheistic and queer people. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen or that the movements that come out of this (relative) lack of discrimination are perfect (hint: they’re not).

But all of this is just to say that all of this gives me benefits that help me survive in a situation that could be totally different for someone else.

This all segue-ways into what I really want to talk about though which is this:

The received wisdom is that being out of work is a bad thing

It certainly is bad, as we know, for income. It is also bad for self-esteem, dignity, social inclusion, relationships and health. So, all other things being equal, a policy position that promotes getting people back into work is both rational and evidence-based.


There’s lots of these asinine liberal assumptions in this article. And by “liberal assumptions” I mean the assumption that we can just tweak the system in this way or that and it will suddenly benefit the least well off. As if this system wasn’t built this way from the get go.

But what is being out of work such a bad thing? Why would simply not having a job make people have lower self-esteem, dignity, make them feel less socially included and affect both their relationships and health?

For me it seems obvious: Any particular thing you give too much credence to in a given society is going to have a huge effect on the defectors or people who don’t/can’t participate in the way they are “supposed” to.

This seems like that’s pretty obvious and somehow the article doesn’t pick up on it. Well of course people start getting depressed, think less of themselves and generally suffer from poorer health and relationships. Our society (whether in the UK or the US) puts way too much emphasis on having a job to begin with!

What are you if you don’t have a job? A bum. A lazy person. A parasite. A no-good individual. You’re suspicious. Possibly a troublemaker. You could be a “social deviant” in some other harmful ways. You’re “elitist” and think you’re just “too good” for a job if you’re voluntarily homeless or unemployed (the latter being my situation, formally speaking).

And so on and so forth.

We have all of these words just to describe people who don’t have a job. And so can anyone really wonder why people suffer so much internally when they don’t have a job? They may think that a job is the only way to be productive. That they’re failing society itself. That there is something wrong with them instead of the world around them. Are they a less virtuous person? Are they a disappointment to their family? What do their former coworkers think? Do they think they are a lazy person who couldn’t hold a job? The horror!

Being unemployed (formally that is) isn’t even necessarily a bad thing as I pointed out earlier. It can help give you the time to figure out what you do want to do. It can help you build a better social network and it can help you do things that you want to do instead of what society tells you you should do.

Again, this isn’t always the case. I don’t want to pull a Dishwasher  and claim that the poor have some sort of radical freedom or whatever because that’s not really the case. But unemployment can sometimes be an opportunity more than a curse. It depends on your socioeconomic status, social network and so on but there’s the possibility at any rate.

So why are those people who are unemployed feeling so shitty?

Probably because they’ve been told they’re supposed to feel that way their whole lives.

Plus there’s whole thing called state-capitalism which should probably be smashed, pronto. Precisely because it restricts workers movements and makes unemployment much harder to deal with than it would be otherwise.

So sure, a bad job is probably worse for people mentally than being unemployed but then the question to ask is:

Why is unemployment so bad for people’s mental health?

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