The hidden injuries of long-term unemployment

We can no longer overlook the emotional and psychological impact of joblessness

The worst of the economic recession has thankfully passed. Massachusetts’ unemployment has fallen from a high of 8.7 percent in January of 2010 to 6 percent in April. But this good news masks a major labor market problem still facing the state – the plight of the long-term unemployed. Of the 221,000 Massachusetts residents who are out of work, 88,000 or roughly 40 percent, are considered long-term unemployed because they have been actively seeking a job for more than six months.

In January, President Obama announced several initiatives to try to combat the problem of long-term unemployment and lamented the fact that those who have been “unemployed the longest often have the toughest time getting back to work. It’s a cruel Catch-22,” he said. “The longer you’re unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem.”

Countless stories in the media since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 have profiled people with broad experience, solid resumes, and strong work ethics, who have become despondent because of the many rejections they have faced in seeking work. Apart from the financial struggle faced by many of the long-term unemployed, there can be serious emotional and physiological consequences to their plight. This dimension of the problem of long-term unemployment has received far too little government attention, despite strong evidence of its impact.

Several studies have suggested that unemployment negatively impacts life satisfaction and may cause an overall lower quality of life. Additionally, unemployment has been found to damage an individual’s perception of self-worth. Women tend to be more critical of themselves than men and devalue themselves much more than men despite being comparatively less affected by long-term unemployment.

Perhaps more recognizable than changes in one’s perceived quality of life is the impact that unemployment has on mental health. Longitudinal epidemiological evidence points towards the damaging effects of joblessness on self-esteem by generating feelings of depression. Studies have shown that unemployed adults are at a particular risk for onset of major clinical depression and should be offered extra services or screenings. Unemployed individuals have also been found to suffer from significantly higher odds of a marked rise in anxiety and depression even compared with individuals in low-paid employment. Even more dramatic and devastating outcomes from unemployment can arise, including an increased risk of death by suicide.

As for an individual’s physical health, several studies have also reported marked effects of unemployment on the physiological well-being. For instance, associations have been found between unemployment and low-grade tissue inflammation and between long-term unemployment and elevated mortality rates. According to one study, unemployed women who were pregnant had a higher risk of preterm delivery.

Despite overwhelming evidence that unemployment can inflict serious physiological and mental health problems on workers, current policies to help unemployed Americans regain jobs overlook these conditions. Career centers provide education and skills training, job postings, classes on resume writing and interviewing, and recently, financial literacy. Nowhere in unemployment services, however, is help with depression offered, and there is little or no mention even made in these services of stress-induced health problems associated with long-term unemployment. If long-term unemployed show signs of serious depression, then no amount of skills training will help them find and keep a job unless their self-esteem and self-confidence are also renewed.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author
There is a strong case to be made for National Institutes of Health research to expand and prioritize health research into ways to reduce stress and restore self-confidence in unemployed workers, especially long-term unemployed workers. There is an equally compelling case that findings from such NIH research should be incorporated into services provided by state and federal agencies to help unemployed Americans get back to work.

Tara Melillo is a graduate of Boston University’s School of Public Health and an incoming student at Vanderbilt University Law School. Cindy L. Christiansen is associate professor of health policy and management at the BU School of Public Health and affiliate statistician at the Center for Health, Quality Outcomes, and Economic Research (CHQOER), Veterans Affairs in Bedford. Evelyn Murphy is the president of The WAGE Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating wage discrimination against women. She was the Massachusetts lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1991, and served as secretary of environmental affairs from 1975 to 1979 and as secretary of economic affairs from 1983 to 1986.