Oct 22 2012
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How Job Insecurity, The Decline in 'Good' Jobs, and an Uncertain Safety Net Affect Health

Sarah Burgard, PhD, MS, MA, is an alumna of the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program, and an associate professor of sociology and epidemiology and research associate professor at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. Burgard recently co-authored a study that finds perceived job insecurity is linked with significantly higher odds of fair or poor self-reported health, symptoms of depression, and anxiety attacks.

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Human Capital Blog: What got you interested in researching the working lives and health outcomes of adults? Was there anything in particular that sparked your curiosity about job insecurity?

Sarah Burgard: I was interested in the excellent research being done by health disparities researchers that focused on socioeconomic position and its strong and persistent relationship with health. My dissertation looked at race and socioeconomic position and how they shaped children's health in different societies. When I started looking at the lives of adults in wealthy economies and focusing on health disparities in these groups, it struck me that most scholars were focused on education and income as stratifying factors, but not looking deeply at what connected them: paid employment.

Careers characterized by stimulating and satisfying work versus dangerous, monotonous or insecure work are of considerable interest in their own right to sociologists of stratification, but they could also be important for understanding divergence in health, as considerable research in occupational psychology and epidemiology has suggested. Many of the projects I've done have been aimed at bringing together the strong work in each of these fields to build even stronger explanations of the way work (or lack of work) influence health. I've been interested in less explored aspects of work, such as perceptions of job insecurity among those still employed, and in taking better account of the multitude of psychosocial aspects of work that affect individuals at a given point in time and the ways these could change over the career.

HCB: Tell us about the study you just published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. What questions were you trying to answer, and how did you go about it?

Burgard: We wanted to examine whether workers who thought job loss in the next year was very or fairly likely had worse mental health outcomes in the wake of the late 2000s recession. There is not extensive evidence on perceived job insecurity and health in the U.S. and none from the era of the Great Recession, which affected many workers. We used our new survey sample of individuals in the metro-Detroit region (the Michigan Recession and Recovery Study) to explore the association, and also adjusted for any recent unemployment they may have had, using a monthly employment calendar that considered their history from January 2007 until interviews in late 2009.

HCB: And what did you find?

Burgard: Our first wave of Michigan Recession and Recovery Study data showed that respondents who perceived that their jobs were insecure reported worse self-rated health and were more likely to meet criteria for major or minor depression in the past two weeks and to report an anxiety attack in the past month. The results for depression and anxiety held even when considering only those who had no unemployment since early 2007.

HCB: What do you hope happens from here? Are there important messages in your findings for working adults or policy-makers?

Burgard: It is important to consider how workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession may be the “tip of the iceberg” of a larger group of workers who think that their job may be terminated soon but have not lost it yet. Because this recovery period has been unusually long and job creation has been slow, persistent insecurity could be a problem for workers who have managed to keep their jobs but may also be coping with family members out of work, declines in their financial assets or other recession-related problems. Moreover, the widespread nature of the recession's effects and the housing market mess mean that individuals don't have as many options to move to better opportunities as in less serious business cycle fluctuations.

While of course we can't turn attention away from those who have been displaced from their jobs, it is important to remember that perceived job insecurity is not a socially visible event like unemployment, and those worried about job loss have limited possibilities for action because of uncertainty about whether job loss will occur. Labor market programs like unemployment insurance were not designed for the insecure worker. Telling workers to take better care of themselves is not going to change the basic structural issues at hand—the slow growth of jobs and smaller number of "good" jobs with decent pay and benefit that are being created in the U.S. as compared to a larger number of "bad" jobs. It will be very interesting to see how changes in the social safety net raise or lower the threat associated with a possible job loss in the U.S. For example, the Affordable Care Act will weaken the link between steady employment with a particular employer and health care coverage, one of the important benefits that contemporary workers fear losing.

HCB: Do you plan to study this subject further?

Burgard: I am very interested in the general topic of uncertainty and instability, and how such threats in multiple domains, such as work, housing, and financial well-being, are associated with health across adulthood. Much work remains to be done that examines the reciprocal causation between these threats and health, the amount of exposure necessary to find associations with health, and the differential trajectories for those whose insecurity is curtailed. The social stratification of uncertainty and instability and social group differences in managing insecurity are important aspects of health disparities that continue to deserve our attention.

Tags: Adults (19-64 years), Health & Health Care Policy, Health & Society Scholars, Michigan (MI) ENC, Research & Analysis, Social Determinants of Health, Voices from the Field