We all know that unemployment is one of the most difficult times in one's life, but did you know that it could possibly kill you? In a study in Finland, Professor Pekka T. Martikainen found that people who had been unemployed in prior years had higher mortality rates than people never unemployed. Rates of mortality for previously-unemployed people were higher for men (141 percent) than for women (35 percent). Those who had experienced unemployment at two points in time over a three year period had even higher rates of mortality: The increased rate of mortality among men was 279 percent and among women 107 percent.
In another study conducted in the United Kingdom, unemployment was strongly linked to increased long-term mortality. In this study, researchers tried to statistically control for other pre-existing risk factors, such as age, weight, smoking, excess drinking, social class, and other factors. Still, the increased risk was 47 percent.
Why Are Unemployed People at Greater Risk?
What could account for these higher rates of mortality? Research has shown that unemployed people are more likely to have poor health habits, characterized by excess drinking, smoking, lack of exercise, and a sedentary lifestyle. The fear of unemployment has been linked to increased cholesterol levels.  Research by Maragaretha Voss and her colleagues in Sweden indicated that higher death rates of previously-unemployed individuals (followed over a 24-year period) were related to higher rates of suicide, accidents, cancer and cardiovascular disease. The fact that these health risks continue for 24 years suggests that unemployment is a potentially dangerous life event.
Research by Kate Strully at Harvard University indicates that unemployment is associated with a range of increased health problems. For individuals with no prior health problems, being fired or laid off increased the risk of fair or poor health by 83 percent in this study. However, the specific health problems were not identified in that study. In a study of 13,451 adults followed over an 18-year period, previous unemployment was linked to a significant increase of acute myocardial infarction. This risk was most pronounced in the first year of unemployment. The longer you are unemployed and the more frequently you are unemployed, the greater the cumulative risk. Indeed, the risks associated with unemployment may be of the same magnitude -- or greater -- as smoking, diabetes and hypertension.
What Needs to be Done?
What are the implications of these dire facts? First, unemployment should be considered a health-risk health factor. Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control in the United States and the National Health Service in the United Kingdom are wise to attend to these health risks. Addressing the psychological and lifestyle effects of unemployment could significantly impact longer-term health of these individuals. Second, the unemployed should be counseled to pay special attention to better health habits. Indeed, during the time of unemployment, a key emphasis on counseling should be on healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise, reduced drinking, eliminating smoking and reducing stress. One study suggests that increasing the motivation of unemployed individuals to pursue more healthy lifestyles can have a positive effect.
Third, the psychological risks accompanying unemployment are not only manifested in increased stress, but also in the increased risk of suicide. Counseling for the unemployed should focus on addressing the sense of demoralization, helplessness, shame, and purposefulness that many unemployed people experience.
Unemployment is not simply a minor inconvenience or a passing phase. And, for some, it may foretell higher levels of risk that take a toll decades later. Recognizing unemployment as a health factor -- both for mental and physical health -- and providing the services to help people cope can have long-lasting preventative effects.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
1. Brenner, S. O., Petterson, I. L., Levi, L., & Arnetz, B. (1988). Stress reactions in relation to threat of job loss and actual unemployment: Physiological, psychological, and economic effects of job loss and unemployment (Report No. 210) [In Swedish]. Stockholm, Sweden: Karolinska Institute, Department of Stress Research.
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