Unemployment Makes Health Worse. Recession Makes It Better?

By | February 23, 2016

Arrows -- unemployment harms health, recession improves it

Getting laid off, job insecurity, and long-term unemployment are hazardous to your health. So why do health measures for statewide populations tend to improve during economic downturns?

Job loss is associated with a 73 percent increase in mortality risk — the equivalent of adding 10 years to a person’s age, according to a 2014 study from Drexel University. Yet the same study found that  each percentage-point increase in state unemployment rate reduced the mortality risk of a resident of that state by 9 percent, about the equivalent of being one year younger.

In other words…

Joblessness strongly increases the health risk for people who are jobless.

But…

Periods of higher unemployment rates, such as recessions, moderately decrease health risk among the entire population.

What at first seems paradoxical may not be. The significant increase in mortality risk for the jobless is limited to a relatively small population — say, 9% in a typical recession. The improvement in mortality for the population is based on a small improvement spread across a much larger population, which can easily be misinterpreted, if someone were to oversimplify it, to mean that everyone’s health is getting better. (In fact, there undoubtedly are other subpopulations for whom health deteriorates during economic downturns. These may include those living in poverty, people with less access to health care, senior citizens, and less educated people.)

The researchers did not investigate the question of why risk improves for employed people during economic downturns, but they offered a hypothesis:

During economic expansions, work is done at a faster pace, more employees are commuting, workers have less average sleep, and so on — all of which can be linked to higher risk of heart attacks, vehicle crashes, industrial injuries and enhanced circulation of germs. All of this reverses in recessions.

Of course, this leaves us with a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Joblessness is harmful to your health — but hard work is also harmful and less work is the cure? This wouldn’t even begin to explain the bi-directional changes in mortality risk for the employed and the unemployed. And it neglects to factor in how job insecurity — which presumably increases across a wide swath of the population when unemployment rates spike — factors into population health shifts.

We still have a lot to learn about where the sweet spot lies for employment, productivity, and worker health. Ultimately, we get on the right track by asking the right questions.