New research uncovers the psychological burden of being unemployed

(Photo credit: Jeff Smith)

New psychology research highlights how unemployment can place a psychological burden on people by frustrating access to several psychological needs, such as a sense of purpose.

Past research has established that unemployment can undermine mental health. The new findings, which appear in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, help explain why that is.

“I was especially interested in this topic because the question of why people work/what work or employment gives us is a fundamental one that is relevant for all of us,” said Andrea Zechmann, a researcher and lecturer at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuernberg.

“Often, employment is reduced to the obvious — such as that it provides an income, gives us a sense of security, or we talk about employment with a negative connotation (it’s too much, too stressful, the colleagues aren’t nice), but we forget that work in general is something that helps us to stay psychologically healthy.”

“Of course, you always have to look at the specific situation (many work conditions are bad and thwart our mental health), but in general work is a good thing for us,” Zechmann said.

The researchers traveled to employment agencies or counseling facilities in several German cities to recruit 1,143 individuals who were currently unemployed or expected to become unemployed soon. The participants completed questionnaires approximately every 4 months for about 2 and half years.

Zechmann and her colleagues found that unemployed people who found new jobs tended to experience a substantial decrease in psychological distress and financial strain. They also tended to experience an increase in several other important factors, including social contact and their sense of collective purpose.

“Employment does not only provide us with an income (the so-called manifest function of employment) but it enables access to psychological experiences that help to satisfy important psychological needs,” she told PsyPost.

“These experiences, the so-called latent benefits of employment are: time structure (employment structures our day, week, year, our whole lives), social contact (to people outside the closer family), status/identity (e.g. the status associated with our profession and gives us a feeling of who we are), activity (employment forces us to be active), collective purpose (employment enables us to collaborate with others and to reach larger goals we ourselves could not reach alone), and competence (employment enables us to meet challenges, to feel effective).

“Both satisfaction of the manifest and latent functions of employment contributes to our mental health,” Zechmann explained.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. For instance, because of Germany’s unemployment protection system and relatively low levels of inequality, the findings might not fully generalize to other countries.

“Questions that still need to be addressed are how the experiences provided by employment can be substituted for those who are unemployed or not in regular employment (on parental leave, homemakers, retirees etc.). We still do not know whether voluntary work or training courses can provide sufficient access to the functions of employment in order to keep people healthy,” Zechmann said.

“We also do not know how employment will change in the future, how many professions will be lost due to technological change, etc. Furthermore, there might be even more latent functions of employment which research hasn’t found yet.”

More often than not, participants who found employment reported a positive impact. But that doesn’t mean employment is always the best option — or that all jobs can fulfill people’s psychological needs.

“I would like to point out that this research does certainly not want to glorify employment. This study only wants to answer the question why employment in general is beneficial to mental health. There are many bad jobs that thwart our mental health and researchers must also continue to identify what makes people ill in the world of work,” Zechmann explained.

The study, “Why Do Individuals Suffer During Unemployment? Analyzing the Role of Deprived Psychological Needs in a Six-Wave Longitudinal Study“, Andrea Zechmann and Karsten Ingmar Paul.

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