Skip to main content

Job loss taking a toll on health and life spans, research shows

By Sari Zeidler, CNN
  • Healthy workers more likely to report health problems if they lose their jobs, experts say
  • Study: Mortality rate of "job losers is still elevated" compared to those who are employed
  • Stress associated with losing a job can also affect immune functions

(CNN) -- The stress of joblessness -- and the loss of health insurance that often accompanies it -- can increase the risk of serious health problems, researchers say.

Healthy workers are 83 percent more likely to report health problems if they join the ranks of the unemployed, according to a study by Dr. Kate Strully, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Albany.

Strully and others discussed the effects of unemployment on health at a forum Friday at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think-tank that seeks to apply economic policy thought to low- and middle-income workers.

Some of the major reasons that job loss is "getting under the skin and causing disease," Strully said, are the loss of a main income source and employer-sponsored health insurance -- and earnings reductions that can last 15 to 20 years even if the worker is hired again.

"All of these things can negatively affect people's health habits, like exercise and diet," Strully said. "It's more difficult to prevent health conditions and manage pre-existing ones without health insurance. We know from loads of evidence that bad jobs are bad for you, or at least associated with bad health."

The stress associated with losing a job can affect immune functions, the ability to fight infection, heightened inflammatory responses associated with cardiovascular disease, and slowed metabolism and associated risks like diabetes, Strully said.

"As we all know, it's much harder to take good care of your self when you're stressed out. It's much harder to get to the gym, eat a good diet and so forth," she said.

But it's not just poor health, a study of workers laid off in Pennsylvania during the 1980s recession suggested.

Men, on average, can lose 1.5 years of life along with losing a job, according to the study by Dr. Till von Wachter, associate professor of economics at Columbia University,

"Even 15 to 20 years after a job loss, the mortality rate of job losers is still elevated relative to a group of people who didn't lose their job," he said.

But the statistic, he said, did not translate to women.

People who lost jobs since the recession started in December 2008 were 13 percent more likely to report thoughts of hurting themselves and four times more likely to show signs of mental illness, said Dr. Neal Walker, a clinical psychologist with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

His data were taken from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a suicide hot line sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, and from the National Association for Mental Illness.

Walker said other unhealthy behaviors associated with job loss include lack of sleep, irritability, alcohol and substance abuse, and overeating or loss of appetite.

"And of course, this is a big one, isolation and feelings of hopelessness," Walker said, particularly common in men ages 50 and older who consider earnings abilities an important part of their identity.

"What to conclude from this, the big take away," von Wachter said, "is that the cost of recessions is probably bigger than what we thought it was. Typically recession is measured in short term earnings loss. It turns out the earnings loss is lasting over 20 years, and there's significant cost in terms of worse health, and those also last 20 years."

The forum was held on the same day the Labor Department issued its October jobs report, which saw an increase of 151,000 jobs in October -- following a 41,000-job loss in September.

The job growth was found in the private sector, where 159,000 jobs were added, while the government slashed 8,000 jobs.

Unemployment remained unchanged at 9.6 percent.