Why Unemployment Is Bad for Your Health

In the United States, each percentage rise in unemployment leads to 6,000 deaths.

In her previous life, Ellen Rood watched over 3,000 head of Black Angus cattle on a sprawling ranch in central Montana. But even 50,000-acre spreads have to downsize sometimes, and Rood found herself laid off.

Like so many other people who lose their jobs, Rood had to downsize her life. Now she lives in an Airstream trailer and manages a small herd of free-range dachshunds.

Some people enjoy being unemployed. No deadlines, no impatient customers to wait on, no orders to take. But for most of us, losing a job is incredibly stressful. Money starts to dry up, social networks fall apart, and self-esteem takes a nose-dive. In fact, a growing number of studies suggest unemployment can lead to a host of serious mental and physical illnesses. For all the talk about on-the-job safety these days, perhaps it’s time to think about the opposite problem: off-the-job safety.

Rood took her layoff hard, and for good reason. “That job wasn’t just a job,” she says. “It was a lifestyle.” She had lived on the ranch since 1992, keeping track of the pedigrees and vital statistics of all of the cattle. (The cattle were mainly “breeding stock”; the ranch made most of its money on calves and bull semen, not meat.)

The job had its perks. She often rode her horse for hours through stunning, wide-open Montana landscapes. She watched flocks of wild turkeys and herds of mule deer mingle in front of the ranch office. And every morning, she fed handfuls of grain to Nighthawk, an aging 2,000-pound bull who scampered up to her like a black lab from a mailman’s nightmare.

But in the new millennium, somebody bought the ranch and turned it into a beef operation. Suddenly, nobody cared anymore about each bull’s great-grandfather or breeding history. Rood was out of a job. “I cried for about three weeks,” she says. “I didn’t know where I was going to live or what I was going to do. I was a mess.”

Grief, uncertainty, self-doubt are textbook responses to losing a job. It’s also a recipe for a breakdown of mental health.

A survey of 235,000 people conducted between 2006 and 2010 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention — the most recent of its kind from the agency — showed one out of 10 people in the United States is depressed. One of the primary factors, researchers found, was unemployment. “The association between unemployment and poor physical and mental health is well established,” the agency’s researchers wrote. “Unemployed persons tend to have higher annual illness rates, lack health insurance and access to health care, and have an increased risk for death.”

For instance, men who had lost jobs within the last four years were three times more likely than stably employed men to have recently abused alcohol. Likewise, women who had a stint of unemployment were three times more likely than other women to have suffered prolonged bouts of depression. All totaled, over 30 percent of all subjects with a history of job loss had also suffered a serious mental health problem, compared with 19 percent of people who worked steadily.

For some, the turmoil is too much to take. A study of more than 500,000 people in Great Britain found that people who said they were unemployed were almost three times more likely than employed people to commit suicide in the next 10 years.

With an estimated 20 to 40 million people losing jobs in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic and an estimated 8.7 million unemployed in 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal, the threat to the nation’s collective mental health is especially worrisome.

Work tied to self-esteem

“Job loss seems to result in a serious erosion in people’s sense of control and self-esteem,” says William R. Avison, PhD, professor emeritus of sociology and leader of the University of Western Ontario study. And since control and self-esteem are two linchpins of mental health, it’s no wonder that unemployment affects people so deeply, he says.

Avison points out that some of the people in his study probably had mental illnesses before they lost their jobs; in fact, the illnesses may partly explain why they were fired. “I see it as a chain of events,” Avison says. “Many people have their first mental health problems of their lives after losing a job. And because of their illness, they may be more likely to lose future jobs.”

Certainly, the impact of job loss goes far beyond mental health. Extreme stress can make a person vulnerable to a wide range of maladies, from headaches to heart attacks. Indeed, many studies suggest that people who have been unemployed suffer more than their share of heart disease and strokes. And in a landmark study published in the 1970s, researchers estimated that every 1 percent rise in unemployment rates in the United States leads to 6,000 extra deaths every year.

Of course, not every unemployed person suffers. People who quit jobs voluntarily usually sail through the change in their life, Avison says. Also, people generally don’t fret about losing a job during good economic times, he says. “When the economy is strong, people expect to find other opportunities.”

Beating the unemployment blues

But even a highly stressful job loss doesn’t have to ruin a person’s health, Avison says. With support from friends — and, perhaps, help from a psychiatrist or other counselor — most people can beat the unemployment blues. “The worst thing people can do is isolate themselves and ruminate about their lost jobs,” he says.

Pennsylvania State University issued a paper about controlling stress during unemployment. Among its tips:

  • Try to keep up your regular routines as best you can. Losing a job can be devastating, so it’s important to keep your life as rich as possible while you’re looking for work.
  • Let the unemployed person and other family members express their feelings, including frustration, anger, and despair. “Don’t talk about ‘snapping out of it,'” the university advised. “This denies the seriousness of someone’s feelings.”
  • Be flexible. Roles within the family will probably shift during this period. Try to be supportive.
  • Take good care of yourself. Try to eat balanced meals, walk a lot, work in the garden, go dancing, and engage in other relaxing activities. This might also be a good time to look into doing yoga or learning relaxation techniques, including meditation and self-massage.
  • Build your network. The clergy, synagogue, mosque, community center, and other religious organizations and support groups may be good places to look for help and support.
  • Get help if you are depressed. “Sometimes things get so difficult and out of control that you need to get professional help,” the advisory noted. In particular, you should seek outside help if you’re depressed (for more than three weeks, you feel numb, empty-hearted, or tired all the time; have sleep problems; cry all the time; can’t concentrate; or don’t feel like eating). See a doctor right away if you have these symptoms; depression is an illness that can and should be treated. If money is an issue, there are some state and county agencies that offer counseling at little or no cost.

The Penn State advisory also advises getting professional help immediately if you ever hit your spouse, consider suicide, think of separating because of unemployment problems, feel overwhelmed by bills, or routinely have more than a few drinks a night. It further warns that you should seek help if you drink in the morning or get “mean” while drinking, find yourself constantly criticizing or berating members of your family, feel as though you can’t cope, or notice your child is “acting out” or in trouble with police. Finally, the advisory says, you should seek professional help if you feel you have no one to talk to, if you experience panic attacks, or if you begin to lie to people about what’s happened or what you’re doing.

A new beginning

Rood, for one, accepted a friend’s help to get her life back on track. The friend suggested she buy an Airstream trailer and even offered her a place to park it. Rood’s new home is 10 miles away from the nearest neighbor, but she loves the solitude — almost as much as her two dachshunds Sam and Chase love chasing the local rabbits.

Shortly after finding her new home, Rood took a job in the circulation department of the local newspaper. She works the night shift, giving her plenty of time to enjoy and explore her new homestead during the day. “Now I feel like I’ve been given a gift,” she says.

Speaking of gifts, Rood’s dachshunds have company. The ranch gave Rood a going-away present. Not a gold watch. Not a severance bonus. Better: a 2,000-pound bull who was happy to see her.


US Unemployment Level, Seasonally Adjusted. Statistica.com, July 2021.
Mortath E. How many US workers lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic? There are several ways to count. June 3, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report. Current Depression Among Adults — United States, 2006 and 2008. October 1, 2010; 59(38);1229-1235

Paul K, Moser, K. Unemployment impairs mental health: Meta-analyses. Journal of Vocational Behavior Volume 74, Issue 3.

Jin RL. The impact of unemployment on health: a review of the evidence. Can Med Assoc J; 153(5)529-539.

Warr, PB. Work, Unemployment and Mental Health. New York, Oxford University Press.

Warr, PB. Self-esteem and unemployment among young workers. Le Travail Human;46,355-366.

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