New research from the US suggests that losing your job can make you sick by raising your risk of developing new health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke or diabetes, even if you find a new job soon after.

The study was the work of Kate Strully, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Albany, New York, and is shortly to be published in the May 2009 issue of the journal Demography. Strully did the research as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Strully said that in today's economy anyone could be at risk of losing their job.

"We need to be aware of the health consequences of losing our jobs and do what we can to alleviate the negative effects," she said.

Previous studies have already shown that workers who aren't in the best of health have a 40 per cent higher risk of losing their job than healthy people, but this study goes beyond that and looks at job "churning" or the rate of job turnover.

You can have low unemployment in an economy but a high rate of "churning" where people are losing their jobs and finding new ones quite quickly, so they don't stay unemployed for long. But this is a different picture to an economy where there is low unemployment and people stay in jobs for longer periods of time.

The economy that is characterized by a high churn rate appears to bring higher risks to health for workers who are not already sick.

For the study, Strully used data from the US Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a nationally representative survey from 1999, 2001 and 2003.

The study looked at closures of establishments that employed blue and white collar workers. A blue collar worker is usually a manual labourer or craftsperson who is paid by the hour and usually works on the "shop floor", and a white collar worker is usually a person in a salaried position like a manager, a salesperson or a computer engineer who usually works in an office.

Strully found that regardless of occupation, those who lost their jobs because of establishment closure were 54 per cent more likely to report fair or poor health, and among those with no pre-existing health condition, it raised the odds of them reporting a new health condition by 83 per cent.

However, when she looked job losses due to being fired or laid off or leaving voluntarily (as opposed to establishment closure), Strully found this more than doubled the odds of blue collar workers reporting fair or poor health, but had no effect on white collar workers' reports. It was not possible to find out why from the data, said Strully.

David R. Williams, Norman Professor of Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health said:

"Where and how we live, work, learn and play have a greater impact on how healthy we are than the health care we receive."

Kate Strully
Demography, Vol 47, May 2009

Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars news release.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD