How Does Employment, or Unemployment, Affect Health?

On average, American adults spend more than half of their waking hours at work.

For millions of Americans, a steady job in safe working conditions means more than simply a paycheck—employment can also provide the benefits and stability critical to maintaining proper health. On the flip side, job loss and unemployment are associated with a variety of negative health effects.

The Link Between Employment and Health

A good-paying job makes it easier for workers to live in healthier neighborhoods, provide quality education for their children, secure child care services, and buy more nutritious food—all of which affect health. Good jobs also tend to provide good benefits. Higher earning also translates to a longer lifespan—since 1977, the life expectancy of male workers retiring at age 65 has risen 5.8 years in the top half of the income distribution, but only 1.3 years in the bottom half.

By contrast, unemployed Americans face numerous health challenges beyond loss of income. Laid-off workers are far percent more likely than those continuously employed to have fair or poor health, and to develop a stress-related condition, such as stroke, heart attack, heart disease, or arthritis. With respect to mental health, a 2010 Gallup Poll found that unemployed Americans were far more likely than employed Americans to be diagnosed with depression and report feelings of sadness and worry.

Additionally, millions of Americans are employed but classified as “working poor." This status is associated with health challenges as well. Research shows that insurance coverage is more likely to be offered to employees earning higher salaries. Moreover, those with lower wages are less likely to access preventive care services that insurance may cover, such as screenings for blood pressure and cholesterol.

Good health is not tied only to whether we work—working conditions need to be safe as well. Private sector employees report nearly 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses each year, with more than half being serious enough to result in days missed, job transfer, or restriction. Studies have estimated that workplace injuries and sick days cost employers upwards of $250 billion annually.

Proactive steps to promote health and safety can improve employees’ well-being while saving money. Studies indicate that employers save an average of $6 for every $1 spent on workplace wellness programs. Health promotion programs reduce sick leave, health plan costs, worker compensation, and disability costs by about 25 percent.

Employers can institute a variety of strategies—including workplace wellness programs, job safety training, and education initiatives—to keep employees healthy and help their bottom line.