Study on the health risks of joblessness finds dysregulated hormones in the unemployed

Health Psychologists at the University of Limerick’s Study of Anxiety, Stress and Health (SASH) Lab have identified new health risks associated with being unemployed. Their findings, published recently in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, provide new evidence about the impact that unemployment may have on health.

The research compared the diurnal patterns of cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEAS) in both unemployed and employed Irish people, finding that both of these hormones are dysregulated in the unemployed.

“Previous research has found that unemployment is a risk factor for depression, with those who become unemployed showing higher rates of depression compared to those who are employed. We aimed to extend this line of research to see whether the stress associated with unemployment also had a negative effect on the hormonal health of those unemployed. We were particularly interested in looking at hormones associated with stress, accelerated aging, heart disease, and depression” said Dr Stephen Gallagher, director of SASHLab.

The study required participants to provide saliva samples across two days so the researchers could examine their cortisol, a key hormone of the stress response, and DHEAS, the sulfate form of a key hormone associated with ageing. Prior research examining cortisol in the unemployed has suffered from some conceptual difficulties, most notably a poor definition of unemployment.

Over the past 30 years there have only been 10 studies that have looked at how cortisol is affected by unemployment, and the majority of those studies have used methods that are now considered to be outdated. The SASHLab study aimed to carry out a robust contemporary study, looking only at those participants that were unemployed and without vocation (i.e. not homemakers or students on a study break), and using best-practice methods of salivary hormone analysis.

“The results from our study confirm that unemployed people are not just more stressed, depressed and report poorer physical health compared to those who were employed; they also display a less healthy hormonal profile as well. These irregular hormonal patterns are not only similar to those experiencing chronic stress, but similar patterns have been seen in those with depression and heart disease,” said Dr Rachel Sumner, now of the University of Gloucestershire.

The authors found that the employed had a healthier awakening response in cortisol; a key index of physical and psychological health, and that their unemployed sample exhibited both blunting in this response and a shallower decline of cortisol throughout the day, indicating a state of chronic stress. The finding of a dysregulated pattern of DHEAS diurnal secretion is new in unemployment research, and was a surprising result of the study. The authors note that dysregulation of DHEA(S) has previously been observed in illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Underlining the importance of this research, findings from all participants showed a healthier cortisol awakening response was associated with higher self-esteem and lower perceived stress, suggesting that these may be important elements in the experience of unemployment and its associated observations in hormonal health. These are important factors to consider in providing support to those who are out of work, particularly during times of recession where employment opportunities are more scarce. In Ireland this is particularly the case, as during the time the study was being carried out, the unemployment rate was 10-11% nationally, and 26% in County Limerick where the study was started.

In summary, the initial findings of this study not only confirm that unemployment constitutes a psychological risk for health; it also demonstrates that the stress associated with unemployment constitutes a biological risk. This indicates that the stress from unemployment may put these individuals at risk of disease or exacerbate any underlying health conditions. Moreover, it also underscores the importance of providing support and interventions to those who are unemployed to counteract the negative experiences associated with unemployment.