Fear of Job Loss May Be Worse Than Loss Itself

THURSDAY Sept. 3, 2009 -- People who constantly worry about losing their jobs reported poorer physical health and more symptoms of depression than those who'd actually been laid off, a new study shows.

University of Michigan researchers analyzed nationally representative samples of surveys from more than 1,700 adults over age 25 who were asked about their physical and mental health, as well as their feelings about the security of their job.

One group answered the questions in 1986 and again in 1989, while another group answered questions between 1995 and 2005.

Those who said they feared losing their job at both points in the study reported poorer health and more symptoms of depression than those who had actually been laid off sometime after the first interview but had found another job by the second.

Those with chronic job insecurity were also more likely to report having poor health than those who smoked or had hypertension, according to the results in one group.

"The negative effect of being persistently insecure was more significant than the unemployment itself," said study author Sarah Burgard, a research assistant professor at the school's Institute for Social Research. "The caveat is these people were re-employed the second time they were interviewed."

Those who remained jobless were not included in the analysis, which will appear in the September issue of Social Science & Medicine.

Much research has looked at the stress of unemployment, Burgard said, but less is known about the effects of persistent job uncertainty, an issue more workers are facing due to shifts in the labor market and the prolonged recession.

With rampant layoffs and structural changes in many industries, expectations of lifelong employment are dwindling. With it comes increased worries about job security, Burgard said.

To measure perceptions of job security, questions included: "If you wanted to stay in your present job, what are the chances you could keep it for the next two years?"

About 18 percent said they felt insecure about their jobs at some point. About 5 percent of participants in the first survey and 3 percent in the second survey reported feeling anxious over the long term.

American workers rely on their jobs for income, health insurance and retirement income, so it's no surprise that worries about losing a job would take a toll.

Yet, for some who are still employed but aren't sure for how long, an inability to take action until the job loss actually occurs and the lack of institutionalized supports for perceived insecurity may make coping more difficult.

In the study, researchers controlled for neuroticism, race, marital status, education and job characteristics, including self-employment.

"By no means am I trying to belittle the stress of job loss," Burgard said. "But the negative anticipation of an event can be more stressful than the event itself. People feel they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, but they can't exert any control over the situation."

To deal with ongoing job insecurity, Burgard recommended trying to stick to a healthy lifestyle, such as eating right, exercising, seeing your doctor and utilizing other stress-reduction techniques.

Making a household budget, getting debt under control, preparing a resume and exploring other job options can also help. And use employer-sponsored health insurance while you have it, the researchers suggested.

"Part of the problem is the feeling of powerlessness," Burgard said. "Taking action, to the extent that it's possible, can help make people feel they have at least some control over a really difficult situation."

Given a tight labor market and other constraints such as family responsibilities, even that may not be enough.

"There is only so much you can do against these forces," Burgard said. "Don't fall into the trap of self-blame. We're going through a global recession, and it's probably not your fault if you're going through a lot of turbulence in your employment."

Dr. Norman Sussman, interim chair of the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, said it's important to keep in mind that there are individual differences in how well people cope with job insecurity and job loss.

For those prone to worry or who are uncomfortable with ambiguity, the worries may be very stressful and lead to insomnia, headaches, bowel disruptions and higher blood pressure, he said. Others are able to weather the storm with few ill health effects. Why some muddle through and others can't is unclear, he added.

"Unhealthy anxiety is worrying about something that may or may not happen, and borrowing tomorrow's problem today," Sussman said.

More information

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America has more on dealing with anxiety and depression.

Posted: September 2009


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