Unemployment Stress: Health Risks

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Robert Maurer


Unemployment Stress: Health Risks

Overweight, diabetes, heart disease: the lack of work has a series of repercussions that go beyond psychological distress, and which must be taken into account.

Last update: April 22, 2021

In addition to providing income, work is central to adult life. It allows you to develop skills and social relationships, to build your own identity. It is, in general, a source of well-being. Unemployment therefore has a number of visible consequences. One of the most important effects is unemployment stress, with repercussions on physical and psychological health.

Unemployment stress is fueled by several sources: on the one hand the economic difficulties, on the other the feeling of social isolation, of less well-being, of a lack of support. Unemployed people have been observed to have much higher levels of stress than the general population.

Health and unemployment

Unemployment stress, in addition to being a problem in itself, is linked to a number of ailments. It is associated with lower subjective well-being and high levels of anxiety. A study found that at the onset of unemployment, the perception of well-being drops dramatically and anxiety increases. After a stabilization phase, in long-term unemployment, stress levels rise again.

The unemployed show worse mental health, correlated with a higher number of psychiatric and psychological visits, as well as a higher number of diagnoses. These effects also appear to be independent of income level.

Unemployment stress

The stress caused by unemployment is linked to a series of physiological changes which, if continued over time, are harmful to health. When we experience a stressful situation, the body prepares to deal with it by producing a series of changes. In this case the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responds to the stressful stimulus (in this case continuous) by secreting the hormone cortisol.

This process, which leads to the cortisol spike, is natural and adaptive. However, in a situation of continuous stress, the release of this hormone produces imbalances in the activation of the HPA axis and, with these, neuroendocrine alterations that are dangerous to health.

These cortisol imbalances have been recorded in unemployed people in numerous studies. However, the alterations vary according to the duration of unemployment and age. Young people tend to show an increasing level of stress with the lengthening of the unemployment period, while in adults it increases in the first six months, and then stabilizes at a high level.

Physical consequences of unemployment stress

Unemployment stress has been linked to a number of illnesses.

Cardiovascular risk

In addition to an abnormal production of cortisol, unemployment is associated with high levels of c-reactive protein and fibrinogen, which are closely related to cardiovascular risk. In other words, the unemployed show a higher cardiovascular risk than the rest of the population.

Long-term unemployment has been found to be associated with acute myocardial infarction and stroke in various studies. It has also been associated with coronary artery disease. However, the results must be taken with caution as a large number of factors can play a part in the development of these disorders.

Obesity and unemployment stress

Another consequence of unemployment stress is the difficulty in maintaining a healthy weight. The results show an increase in weight proportional to the duration of unemployment. This could be explained by a change in eating habits; a reduced income leads to the purchase of cheaper and less healthy products.

The smoking factor would also be linked to this. In this sense, research indicates that weight reduction usually occurs in unemployed smokers, while non-smokers increase weight.

Type two diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is associated with irregular patterns in cortisol production, obesity and cardiovascular risk. It is therefore understandable that unemployment is also related to the risk of diabetes. For example, in a 2017 study by Nina Rautio, body mass index, level of physical activity and other socio-demographic factors were taken into account. The unemployed showed a higher risk of suffering from prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Definitely, unemployment has consequences that go beyond psychological distress. These results are particularly striking: poor health can complicate the already difficult task of finding a job. Therefore it is essential that interventions in this category include stress management strategies and promoting healthy habits.

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