Fast Company

Job Loss and Health

I’ve been interested in the effects of stressful jobs on workers’ health, which I discussed in  150 Best Low-Stress Jobs, and I’ve also been interested in job security, which I wrote about in 150 Best Recession-Proof Jobs and again in 50 Best College Majors for a Secure Future. Recently I came across some research that combines aspects of both subjects by focusing on the health effects of losing a job.

The researchers, at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and at Yale University School of Public Health, specifically explored whether job loss causes an increase in alcohol consumption or body mass index (the latter is a measure of weight gain). They wanted to exclude cases in which the worker lost the job because of alcohol use, so they avoided using a sample that would include all people who had lost their jobs and instead based their study only on people who had lost their jobs because of business closings.

They drew their data from the Health and Retirement Survey conducted by the RAND Corporation, looking at cases from 1992–2002 and focusing on those who were between 51 and 61, were not self-employed, and had been working for the same employer for at least two years.

The researchers found great variation in response to joblessness, but the overall pattern was that most people did not show a behavioral effect. Those who gained weight or increased drinking tended to be those who were already pursuing unhealthy behaviors prior to their job loss. It would seem, therefore, that any interventions to help displaced workers should focus on an at-risk subpopulation.

This topic takes on added relevance right now because of the debate going on in Congress about health-care reform. Under our present system of health-care insurance for people of working age, which is based overwhelmingly on coverage by employers, job loss can lead to serious health consequences not because of changes in behavior but because of loss of coverage.

But job loss is not the only threat to health coverage. Under the present system, employers can raise the cost of coverage, raise the cost of copayments, or lower the extent of coverage. And if these stay steady and the employer eats the increased costs, the workers will pay anyway through lower salaries.

Probably not a single person in the United States will approve of every feature of the plan for health-care reform that eventually emerges from the Congressional sausage factory. Nevertheless, we need to stop the alarming growth of health-care costs, which now consume one-sixth of our economy. Those who are opposing health-care reform most vocally are not offering any realistic alternative proposals, and the status quo is no longer an option.

A huge amount of lobbyist money has been thrown at Congress to try to influence the outcome of this legislation. I urge all readers of this blog to contact their members of Congress and the relevant committee heads and let your voter voices be heard.

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