Losing Your Job: A Blow to Your Health Too

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Losing your job can make you feel lousy. Whether you're fired or laid-off, joining the ranks of the unemployed is not exactly a feel-good event. You don't need a study to tell you that.

But what impact does losing a job have on your health? Could a layoff send a perfectly healthy person into a downward spiral of sickness? It's possible, says Kate Strully, a sociologist at State University of New York in Albany. In her new study published in the journal Demography, Strully analyzed a variety of job loss situations — including being fired or laid off or losing a job after the entire company shut down — and found that job loss may indeed trigger serious physical and physiological illness.

Strully used a nationally representative and continually updated data set known as the U.S. Panel of Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), which surveys people around the country each year on their employment status and their self-reports of health, among other things. Strully used data from 1999, 2001 and 2003 to track people's job status and the impact on each person's health 18 months later. Since previous studies on employment and health suffered from a chicken-or-egg conundrum — researchers could never be sure whether the stresses and strains of unemployment led to poorer health, or whether people's poor health led to missed work days and lower productivity, which contributed to job loss — Strully focused on people who reported having lost their job due to factors out of their control, such as the entire company shutting its doors. (See the worst business deals of 2008.)

She found that among people unemployed under these circumstances and who did not report any health problems prior to losing their job, 80% were diagnosed with a new health problem — ranging from hypertension and heart disease to diabetes — 18 months later. (Not surprisingly, those who started out with one or more of the conditions asked about on the survey were 54% more likely to lose their job within a year and half, for any reason, than those who did not report any health problems.) The most commonly reported conditions among this group were high blood pressure, arthritis and other cardiovascular-related problems. "Job loss leads to a lot of physiological changes," says Strully, who conducted her study as a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar. "That's definitely what this suggests."

More intriguing was the long-term effect job loss appeared to have. Even if some of these people found new jobs soon after losing their first one, they were more likely to retain the legacy of poor health from having once been unemployed. "People who lost their job and were re-employed within a year and half also reported increased onset of new health problems," she says. "They shouldn't have had the most severe experiences of unemployment and income loss, and still we see them having new health issues."

Strully also found that blue-collar workers were harder hit by job loss, both physically and mentally. After losing their job, whether they were fired, laid off or left voluntarily, blue-collar workers were twice as likely to report being in fair or poor health as white-collar workers, among whom Strully found no such change in health. While the current study does not investigate the reasons for that disparity, Strully believes it may have something to do with the smaller financial buffer that blue-collar employees tend to have to cushion them from a sudden loss of income — the stress and anxiety of losing a job may therefore have a bigger impact on them. (Read about how our emotions can get us out of the recession.)

Other research has documented how harmful stress can be on the body; anxiety can raise levels of hormones that promote inflammation and other metabolic processes that can wear down the cardiovascular system, making us vulnerable to stroke, hypertension and heart disease. These studies also show that some behavioral changes, such as getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet, can help to reduce some of the damaging effects of stress on the body — something to keep in mind if you find yourself suddenly out of work.

All of this serves as a strong reminder that losing one's job can be a trauma — for both body and mind, and one that may have lasting effects. "This study is important and timely, given our current economic challenges, because it raises important questions as we think about rebuilding our nation and coming out of the economic recession, says David Williams, professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health and staff director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America. "We need to think about the health implications that economic changes are having in the population at large."

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