In terms of self-esteem, new British research suggests that repeated bouts of unemployment don't affect everyone in the same way.
The study authors found that people who are consistently successful in finding new work after losing a job are ultimately much better at coping with so-called "serial joblessness" than are those who lose a job after a prolonged period of absence from the workforce.
"Many workers are likely to experience unemployment during the course of their working life, and some may be unemployed several times," said study author Cara L. Booker, deputy director of graduate studies with the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex in Colchester. "Depression and anxiety are common among the unemployed," she noted.
"These findings suggest that if people find work after losing their job the first time, then they are more confident in their ability to get a job if they are unemployed for a second or third time," Booker said. "Levels of distress seem to increase most for those who have been out of the labour market for a while and then have repeated unsuccessful attempts to go back to work."
Booker and study co-author Amanda Sacker report their findings in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Unemployed people studied
To explore the issue of how recurring unemployment affects psychological well-being, the authors focused on data collected by the British Household Panel Survey, which was launched in 1991 and involved more than 5,500 households and 10,000 participants over the age of 16.
Booker and Sacker analysed information concerning job status, income levels and indicators of well-being (such as incidences of stress and/or anxiety) among participants polled between 1991 and 2008.
The authors noted that 12% had experienced unemployment at least once over the 17-year timeframe. Of these, 82% had been unemployed on one occasion, while 15% had faced job loss twice, and 3% reported enduring three or more non-working periods.
As expected, those who had multiple job losses over time generally tended to feel worse with each successive job loss. However, after digging deeper, the investigators found that this overall trend was in some instances bucked, depending on an individual's prior work history.
On the one hand, there were those who had previously experienced long periods of "economic inactivity," for reasons both voluntary and involuntary. Those included time off for maternity leave or educational pursuits; being made redundant; coping with long-term illness or having to care for others; or even retirement. During such times, they were not strictly "unemployed" in as much as they were not actively seeking work.
Eventually these "inactive" workers re-entered the workforce. But in turn, once they lost their newfound work and became actively "unemployed," their emotional experience of subsequent joblessness appeared to differ from that of newly unemployed workers who had never left the workforce.
For example, losing a job for the first or even second time was found to hit those with a continuous work history harder emotionally than those who had been economically inactive before re-entering the workforce.
Yet, those who kept searching for and finding new work without ever becoming unemployed seemed to develop a thicker skin by the time a third job loss came around. This meant that by their third job loss, those with a continuous work history actually suffered less emotional hardship than those with an inactive past, the study authors explained.
Dealing with job loss
Booker and Sacker suggested that the underlying reason for these diverging and shifting reactions could be that men and women who never fully disengage from economic activity ultimately come to feel less anxious about repeated job losses. Essentially, they maintain confidence that they will always be able to find new work.
By contrast, those who have a history of falling out of the labour market altogether will come to feel greater anxiety when the jobs they finally find are repeatedly pulled out from under them, the authors theorised. Essentially, they become increasingly sensitive to the job loss experience, because they do not feel entirely confident that they will be able to overcome serial bouts of unemployment.
Neither gender nor age appeared to affect the findings. However, the researchers noted that those who had pulled in relatively big bucks when employed tended to experience significantly more distress during periods of time when they were unable to replace their lost income than did those whose prior take-home pay was relatively small.
Although the authors cautioned that their findings are not necessarily applicable outside the British context, they suggested that public policy makers should generally take note of how the loss of a job and the subsequent failure to find work might adversely affect mental health.
"Government schemes aimed at increasing the number of people in work should be aware of the psychological harm to those who fail to find work," Booker advised. "Focus should also be on providing good quality long-term jobs rather than temporary or insecure employment."
Michael McKee, a psychologist and stress expert at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, agreed that attention needs to paid to the body blow that job loss can inflict on any individual's sense of identity and self-respect.
"If you keep trying to find a job and don't," he noted, "or if you find a job and then lose it, and that pattern repeats and repeats, you not only lose identity, you lose income, the structure to your day, your sense of achievement, your friends from work, your other friends because you are embarrassed to be around them, your self-confidence, your self-respect. Then you start to lose hope and meaning and purpose, [and] feel alienated and hopeless and helpless."
So, McKee added, "Well-meaning programmes, public and private, which help people find jobs, need to add caution to eagerness. Caution that they not set people up for repeated failure, for long times between jobs, which is likely to accelerate the ride to depression. Always finding another job quickly lets you keep your hope up, but struggling [can] often lead to increased fear and anxiety."
(Copyright © 2010 HealthDay. All rights reserved.)