Researchers have found the direct biological stress associated with unemployment may explain the increased mortality and morbidity among job-seekers.
University of College London investigators correlated inflammatory markers found in blood, which are influenced by stress, to heart disease.
The markers are clinically important because mildly raised levels predict atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries due to fatty deposits) and heart disease.
Using data on 23,025 participants from the Health Survey for England and Scottish Health Survey, the researchers found that unemployed men and women had higher levels of inflammatory markers than employed counterparts.
This association was apparent after taking into account a wide range of demographic and lifestyle factors: occupational social class from last job, housing tenure, smoking, alcohol consumption, body mass index, long-term health conditions, and depressive/anxiety symptoms.
Older job-seekers (aged 48-64) were more affected than younger jobseekers.
Effects were stronger in Scotland, where unemployment was higher and unemployment spells on average longer during the years of the study.
The authors suspect this may point to “accumulation effects,” with inflammatory markers more affected if a person has been unemployed for a long time. This would also explain the stronger effects for older job-seekers, likely to have accumulated more unemployment than younger counterparts.
Additionally, unemployment may be more stressful for older job-seekers facing age discrimination or with outdated skills.
Experts have known that unemployed people are at greater risk of mortality and physical ill-health compared to employed counterparts. However, the exact mechanism on how this occurs and how unemployment damages health, has been unknown.
Unemployment is a stressful experience that often involved a loss of status and social support as well as income. As such, it could damage health through direct effects of stress in a similar way to other negative life events such as bereavement, or by causing changes in lifestyle factors like smoking and exercise.
Alternatively, job-seekers might be less healthy because poor health increases chance of unemployment.
This is why inflammatory markers were used in this study; because mild increases in inflammatory markers reflect early stages of disease before people begin to feel ill, they should not on their own influence chances of job loss or re-employment.
“These results indicate that stress itself may play a pathological role during unemployment which is independent of lifestyle factors, but that certain groups may be more affected than others,” said researchers.
“This research highlights the need to protect both the long-term unemployed and older job-seekers in the labor force.”