Conventional wisdom dictates that a job – any job – is better for our mental health than unemployment. This line of thinking makes sense. After all, our wallets need income – any income – and financial stress can contribute greatly to mental health issues. Having a job also gives us a sense of purpose and routine. These things are critical in fighting many mental health problems.
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However, new research suggests that this thinking simply does not hold up in the real world. While having a job is important, the quality of the job is far more so. Having a poor quality job is often unavoidable. We need a source of income to maintain basic life requirements like food and shelter. However, an unfulfilling work life may have a seriously adverse affect on our mental health. Surprisingly, the toll taken by a bad job can be even greater than the one taken by complete unemployment.
Psychosocial job quality refers to a job’s capacity to challenge the employee and promote a sense of autonomy and control. Work with a high degree of psychosocial job quality will allow the employee to choose from a variety of tasks, and will offer the option of doing them in a creative way. Fields like teaching, management consulting, and politics have this in spades. However, jobs such as data entry and telemarketing sales, as well as automated tasks such as assembly line work, do not offer it. Unfortunately, jobs in the former group are far more scarce than those in the latter.
It is not surprising that engaging jobs promote better mental health than boring ones. Who wouldn’t rather be a graphic designer than a cashier? The shock, however, comes in the finding that a disengaging job is even worse for our mental well-being than total unemployment.
Unemployment is extremely taxing on mental health. Besides the obvious financial repercussions, it takes a serious toll on our self-esteem and sense of dignity. It can damage our relationships and our physical health. There is ample evidence to suggest that while drug addiction can lead to unemployment, unemployment can fuel addiction, as well. Being unemployed makes us feel bored, useless, and terrified.
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What could be worse than that?
The Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) found the answer. Their study was published by Peter Butterworth and colleagues at the Australian National University. It determined that, although unemployment is terrible for mental health, a job that fails to engage the employee can be far more so. Butterworth examined people moving from unemployment into employment and found a massive difference between them based on job type.
The respondents who moved from unemployment to work with a high level of psychosocial job quality showed a marked improvement in their mental health. Those who moved from unemployment to poor quality jobs, however, experienced a significant worsening of their mental state. The financial and social benefits of employment were not enough to offset the monotony of their work.
Unfortunately, we do not always have the option of a stimulating and fulfilling work life. However, when given the choice between unemployment and a terrible job, those with the opportunity to do so may want to think twice. Managers can also use this information to make low-level work as engaging as possible. By injecting otherwise monotonous jobs with a dose of variety and autonomy, we can keep employees healthier and more engaged at work.