Job insecurity threat to the nation's health

Redundancy ills: Study of 10,000 civil servants finds spectre of unemployment causes physical and psychological problems
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The Independent Online

Health Editor

Rising levels of job insecurity among white-collar workers will mean poorer health in the general population, according to the most comprehensive study to date of the before and after effects of threatened redundancy.

Researchers say that living with the threat of unemployment or forced job change has a deleterious effect on health even when the fears eventually prove groundless.

They say their findings are relevant to the privatisation of public services and other rationalisation programmes being carried out in the private sector.

The on-going study, known as the Whitehall II study, involving more than 10,000 civil servants, found that workers who thought they were at risk suffered more symptoms and reported more health problems than colleagues who believed themselves secure.

The changes in physical health were greater for men than women, while women suffered more psychological symptoms than men. Previous studies have shown that women react to the anticipation of job loss more emotionally, with a range of psychological symptoms, than men who exhibit physical problems although these may be related to psychological stresses.

The health problems could not be linked with changes in health-related behaviour such as smoking, drinking, or exercise, according to Jane Ferrie and colleagues from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University College London Medical School. Ms Ferrie says that "job insecurity has little effect on behaviour patterns that may damage health".

According to the report in the British Medical Journal, many studies have shown that unemployment is bad for health but the new findings are important because of the high quality of the before and after data.

Previous studies have focused on "before" data, when the prospects of job losses had been announced but before the day of redundancy. The Whitehall II study drew on baseline data collected in 1986 before the privatisation of the Property Services Agency, a civil service department, was first mooted in 1988. A prolonged period of uncertainty and demoralisation for 666 professional and technical staff followed. By 1994, 43 per cent of the staff were no longer in paid employment, and of those in work, 52 per cent considered their job to be insecure.

The researchers conclude: "The increasing levels of job insecurity created by changes in the nature of employment relationships may lead to greater ill-health in the general population, beyond the direct effects of unemployment."

The Whitehall II study began in 1985 and involves 10,308 (6,895 men and 3,413 women) working in 20 civil service departments in London. Employment covered a wide range of grades from office support staff to permanent secretary.