Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sparked outrage with his comments in the House of Commons regarding proposed changes to the Employment Insurance program. “There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job, said the minister, noting that he had a variety of jobs over the course of his career.
Is Flaherty right? Is having any job better than being unemployed? We know that being unemployed is associated with a range of adverse consequences for individuals. In terms of health, unemployment is clearly bad with the unemployed experiencing more stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. However we also know that working in poor quality employment (in this instance employment characterized by low levels of autonomy, control, and skill use and high levels of workplace stress) is also associated with mental health problems – individuals in low quality employment also experience more stress, anxiety and depression.
So is a bad job better than no job? Several studies have directly addressed this question. In 1990, O’Brien and Feather reported a study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. They measured mental health and work values in a sample of people leaving high school; and then again two years later. At the follow-up they were able to sort respondents into three groups, the unemployed, those in good employment (jobs that allowed them to use their skills and education) and bad employment. Not surprisingly they found that those in good employment had less depressed affect, higher life satisfaction, a higher sense of personal control and a higher sense of personal competence than did the unemployed. However, those in “bad” jobs did not differ from the unemployed group. In terms of the mental health outcomes considered in this study, having a bad job was just as bad as being unemployed.
Winefield and colleagues reported a similar study of high school leavers in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1991. They found that individuals who found satisfying jobs and those who went on to further study fared much better than individuals (higher self-esteem, less depressive affect, less externality, and less negative mood ) that were either unemployed or who were in dissatisfying jobs.
In 1993 Gaetz reported a study in Social Science and Medicine that analysed data from a longitudinal study in Australia. Importantly, Gaetz was able to track people over time as they moved in and out of jobs. He found that mental health (as measured by a standardized instrument) was lower in the unemployed than it was in the employed. However the effects of having a job were directly dependent on the quality of work with those in poor quality jobs showing poorer mental health than did the unemployed.
Several other studies on the topic show similar results. Having no job is bad for individual health. Having a bad job is at least just as bad (and possibly worse). There are direct and adverse consequences for individuals who are forced into low quality employment and these suggest that the short term savings of restructuring policies now may be offset by increased social and health care costs in the future.