Though unemployment is at its lowest in years, more than 9 million Americans are out of work, and their health may be suffering as a result. The health effects of unemployment are both physical and mental, and only magnified by financial stress.
Eat healthy foods, get plenty of rest, exercise regularly… and go to work? The health effects of our diet, sleep patterns and activity levels are well known, but there is evidence that having a stable job is just as important to our well-being.
In September, the unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s the first time that number has fallen below 6 percent since July 2008, prior to the recession. This means fewer Americans are unemployed and actively seeking work. But it also means there are still about 9.3 million filling out applications, and possibly suffering serious health effects.
Unemployment brings substantial stress
Many health effects of unemployment stem from stress brought on by a loss of income. Although unemployment compensation is usually available, the temporary benefits vary greatly and pay out an average of one-half of one’s previous wages.
Making this amount of money stretch to cover housing, food and medical costs— particularly when there is a family involved— doesn’t only result in stress, but in budget cuts that can impact an otherwise-healthy lifestyle.
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For adults who spend around half of their waking hours on the job, work is not only a primary source of income but part of their identity. Loss of a job, then, isn’t only accompanied by financial pressures. It can cause workers to question their worth and who they really are. One study even characterized loss of work as a form of bereavement.
Losing your job can also mean losing a sense of community and your social ties with co-workers. As your income level drops, so too can your social standing, if you’re unable to afford the sorts of social engagements you once enjoyed.
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Stress of unemployment harms physical, mental health
Research published in the journal Demography indicates the unemployed are 54 percent more likely to report having only fair or poor health, and 83 percent more likely to develop a stress-related health condition like heart disease. Unemployment also brings a potential increase in unhealthy coping behaviors, like drinking and drug use, which likewise multiply the risk of ill health.
Short-term manifestations of stress, like lack of sleep and headaches, are disruptive, but long-term physical effects can be far more troubling. Stress is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease and a weakened immune system. If you’re also having to trim your food spending— choosing presumably cheaper and possibly less healthy options— and don’t have your former access to quality health care, you could have the makings of a serious illness.
The American Psychological Association further reports that the unemployed are twice as likely to suffer from psychological problems including depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem. The link between unemployment and suicide is also well-established, with some estimating the unemployed to be twice as likely to take their own lives.
These health effects can be compounded by lack of treatment. Under the Affordable Care Act, the unemployed may be eligible for subsidized health care, but when income is limited to a few hundred dollars a week, even subsidized health insurance isn’t attainable for everyone.
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How to handle the stress of unemployment
Stress management is a skill we should all work to develop, but particularly if you find yourself looking for a job. Dr. Emma Trejo, an internal medicine specialist with HealthCare Partners in Los Angeles, says proper self-care is paramount.
For patients navigating the stress of unemployment, she urges “allowing time to exercise and sleep well, not skipping meals and, more important, having a sense of improvement in their lives, by trying to better themselves physically and emotionally.”
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Paying such attention to your own well-being doesn’t only combat the feelings of stress, but also the physical effects of it, while potentially improving your chances of finding work.
“I encourage my patients to make a positive effort to turn this negative event into something positive and try to use the opportunity of not working to finish a project that has been waiting for a long time while they continue to apply for a new position,” she says. “For some it has been the chance to change career paths or go back to school and complete a degree to advance themselves in the workforce.”
A job loss is bound to disrupt your life, but it can also harm your health. If you find yourself looking for work, try to focus more energy on your well-being than on your problems; a positive attitude in the face of adversity could be the quality that lands you a rewarding new career.