Workers "adapt" to serial job lay-offs if work found in between

28 June, 2011

Workers cope better with serial job lay-offs and "adapt" to repeated spells of unemployment if they always manage to find work in between, finds research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

But those who struggle to find work become "sensitised" and progressively more distressed with each attempt they make to re-enter the job market, it suggests.

The findings have implications for welfare to work policies, say the authors.

The authors base their findings on 17 years of data extracted from the British Household Panel Survey, an annual nationally representative sample of the population, involving more than 10,000 people in 5500 households.

The authors used data going back to 1991, when the survey started, up until 2008, and included 12% (1642) of people who had experienced at least one spell of unemployment.

Of these, more than 80% had been out of a job once, 15% had been out of work twice, and 3% had experienced three or more spells of unemployment.

Unsurprisingly, psychological wellbeing tended to be poorer each time the individual experienced a spell of joblessness, as assessed by a validated health and wellbeing questionnaire (GHQ-12).

But the psychological health of those who always managed to find work in between, improved by the time they were out of a job for the third time, to the point where their GHQ-12 scores were the same as when they were employed.

However, those who struggled to find work after being laid off had significantly higher GHQ-12 scores, when they lost their job for the third time, than those of their peers who got work in between.

Furthermore, those on a high income had much higher levels of distress when they failed to get a job than those on lower incomes. Gender and age had little bearing on the results.

The authors say that their findings suggest that periods of work in between help people "adapt" to serial unemployment, while prolonged periods of joblessness do the opposite and "sensitise" people so that they become more distressed and find it harder and harder to re-enter the labour market.

They point out that the UK labour market is changing, as the proportion of people employed by the same company for between five and 10 years fell steadily between 1996 and 2001, while those employed for between two and five years rose during the same period.

This increase in what the authors term "flexibility" could very well mean that more and more people experience spells of unemployment, they say, adding: "the implications for welfare to work policies are clear."

"In the UK, the newly implemented UK fit note, the Health Work and Wellbeing Initiative and the proposed changes to the current welfare scheme aim to reduce the number of [people not working]. However, measures should also be taken to ensure that good quality employment is achieved so that repeated spells of unemployment are less likely to occur," they conclude.

Source: BMJ - Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.