Study finds unemployment and temporary employment are associated with heightened inflammation

Researchers from the University of Gloucestershire and SASHLab at the University of Limerick have recently carried out a study using national data to explore the health associations of different profiles of employment.

Using data from over 4,000 individuals from across Great Britain, my colleagues and I have found that both unemployment and temporary employment are associated with elevated levels of inflammation in a marker associated with future cardiovascular disease risk. The findings have been published in Brain, Behavior & Immunity.

Much research has been carried out to understand how unemployment might be harmful to health, as it is considered to not only be a source of chronic stress, but it is also associated with increased risk factors to poor health through deprivation (both financial and psychosocial). Building on previous work examining stress hormones in the unemployed, we decided to look further into the dynamics of the employment versus unemployment discourse.

Instead of focusing on comparing the unemployed to the employed, we decided to delve deeper into examining different types of employment to provide a new means of understanding the modern job market and how this may relate to health.

Using national data from Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Survey from a period of time just after the economic crash, we set out to uncover the health associations of different profiles of employment.

Using the available survey data, and two biomarkers of peripheral inflammation (C-reactive protein and fibrinogen) taken in 2011-2012, we explored the differences between employed (permanent, temporary, and self-employed) and unemployed participants. Both C-reactive protein and fibrinogen, as well as being markers of inflammation, are elevated in times of chronic stress, and have significant links to future cardiovascular health.

We found that fibrinogen was significantly elevated in the unemployed compared to the employed after controlling for a profile of individual, social, and health confounds. Looking into the four (un)employment subgroups, both temporary employment and unemployment appeared to have similar elevations in this inflammatory marker; potentially indicative of the stressful conditions they experience.

This extends previous knowledge about the impact of employment conditions on health, where the previous rhetoric related to any type of employment being preferable (in health and wellbeing terms) to being unemployed.

We know that unemployment is stressful, and that this stress has an impact on people’s’ health over time. However, now we are able to say that it would seem that being in temporary employment is also associated with these same health risk factors.

These findings are important because, since the recent recession, temporary employment is on the rise in many countries across the world. We are now able to show that, in terms of people’s’ health, being in precarious employment is no less damaging than being out of work.

This research has implications for the way that governments address the increasing rate of employment precarity. Whilst the UK government has taken steps to regulate the temporary employment market by banning exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts, more needs to be done to ensure the health and welfare of those not in positions of stable, permanent employment.

There are also implications to ensure that individuals do not fall into a trap of unemployment and temporary employment. To address this, companies should focus on improving the overall health and wellbeing of their workforce to decrease absenteeism and job loss. This would have added benefits of potentially decreasing the need for temporary employment to fill gaps left by those out of work for health reasons.

Understanding Society – the UK Household Longitudinal Study is led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, and its datasets are available through the UK Data Service.

The study, “Unemployment, employment precarity, and inflammation“, was authored by Rachel C.Sumner, Rachel Bennett, Ann-Marie Creaven, and Stephen Gallagher.