Does unemployment CAUSE poor mental health? After all, isn’t it possible that poor mental health can cause unemployment? Seriously, what employer wants to hire a distressed, anxious, depressed employee with low self-esteem?
In an attempt to arrive at a firm conclusion about whether unemployment actually causes changes in mental health, Paul and Moser (2009) report on the results of two meta-analyses that included 237 cross-sectional studies as well as 87 longitudinal studies. In addition to their primary goal of uncovering the causal link between unemployment and mental health, the researchers also investigated a number of factors that might affect unemployment’s role in predicting mental health.
Overall, Paul and Moser’s results suggest that unemployement does indeed have a negative influence on mental health outcomes (e.g., symptoms of distress, anxiety, depression, self-esteem). If this seems obvious, Paul and Moser also uncovered several factors that make some individuals more prone to poor mental health during unemployment. For example, the negative effects of unemployment were greater for men than for women, greater for blue collar workers than white collar workers, and greater for the long-term unemployed than the short-term unemployed.
But most interesting of all, the results of the meta-analysis on the longitudinal studies lend strong support for the long held assumption that unemployment does indeed cause changes to mental health! Across many studies, losing one’s job leads to a subsequent decrease in mental health. However, once individuals become re-employed, their mental health improves substantially. And importantly, intervention programs were found to positively influence the mental health of unemployed individuals (finally some good news!). The upshot here is that unemployment can have a very serious impact on individuals’ mental health, especially when long-term,and more so for men and blue collar workers.
Fortunately, the results of this meta-analysis also suggest that interventions can help the unemployed (although the specific nature of these interventions is not made explicit in the article – they may have differed substantially).