A person’s overall pattern of employment, including pay, hours, schedule flexibility and job security, influence mental and physical health as well as the risk of being injured on the job, according to new research.
“This research is part of a growing body of evidence that the work people do — and the way it is organized and paid for — is fundamental to producing not only wealth, but health,” said senior author Noah Seixas, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington.
According to researchers, technology and other forces are changing the nature of work. The traditional model of ongoing, full-time employment with regular hours and job security is giving way to gig-economy jobs, short-term contracts, nonstandard work hours, and flexible employer-worker relationships.
Current models for understanding this work are too simplistic, according to first author Trevor Peckham, a UW doctoral student in environmental and occupational health sciences. Studies of a single aspect of employment may not capture important elements of jobs that influence health, he noted.
“Employment relationships are complex,” he said. “They determine everything from how much you get paid, to how much control you have over your work schedule, your opportunities for advancement, and how much protection you have against adverse working conditions, like harassment.”
For the study, the researchers used data from the General Social Survey collected between 2002 to 2014 to create a multidimensional measure of how self-reported health, mental health, and occupational injury were associated with the quality of employment among approximately 6,000 US adults.
“There are many different forms of employment in the modern economy,” Peckham said. “Our study suggests that it is the different combinations of employment characteristics, which workers experience together as a package, that is important for their health.”
- People employed in “dead-end” jobs — for example, manufacturing assembly line workers who are often well-paid and unionized but with little empowerment or opportunity — and “precarious” job holders — janitors or retail workers who work on short-term contracts and struggle to get full-time hours — were more likely to report poor general and mental health, as well as occupational injury compared to people with more traditional forms of employment.
- “Inflexible skilled” workers, such as physicians and military personnel, who have generally high-quality jobs but with long, inflexible hours, and “job-to-job” workers, such as Uber drivers, gig workers or the self-employed doing odd jobs, had worse mental health and increased injury experience compared to those with standard employment.
One of the most surprising findings, according to the researchers, was for “optimistic precarious” job holders, which includes service-sector workers with high empowerment, such as florists. The researchers found these workers had similar health to those in standard employment, despite having jobs characterized by insecurity, low pay, and irregular hours. However, these workers report high control over their schedules, opportunities to develop, and involvement in decision-making.
“Our research has direct implications for policy,” said co-author Anjum Hajat, a UW assistant professor of epidemiology. “As we have seen at the local level, Seattle City Council has been actively promoting policy solutions to improve workers’ lives.”
Those solutions include the secure scheduling ordinance, minimum wage, and family leave policies. These approaches show “the interest and appetite for change,” she said.
Researchers and policymakers must continue the dialogue with employers “to demonstrate the benefits of increased worker security and stability on employee turnover, productivity and, ultimately, their bottom line,” she said.
“Using policy and legal levers to influence how people are hired and treated at work can have profound effects on improving the health of workers and their communities,” Seixas added.
The study was published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.
Source: University of Washington