Poor health is an outcome of unemployment, and men tend to be far more affected than women. Jenny Gulliford talks about the findings of her latest report ‘Sick of Being Unemployed: The health issues of out of work men and how support services are failing to address them’. She argues that the government must consider how ill-health in unemployed men could be prevented, and should be a part of back to work support provided through Jobcentre Plus.
Whilst the harmful effect of unemployment can be felt by both genders, research indicates that men are more likely to suffer adverse health consequences than women, especially in the short term. Support services can be improved to ensure that this gender disparity does not lead to men being prevented from returning to work.
Unemployed men have a rate of depression twice that of unemployed women, and unemployment may double or even triple the risk of male suicide. Unemployed men experience a 20 per cent excess risk of death compared to the rest of the population. The number of healthy life years (a composite measure of the remaining years that a person can expect to live without disability) has a negative association with long term unemployment, but this association is only found in men.
The reasons that unemployment affects an individual’s health, and why men are more affected by it, are complex and will vary from individual to individual. Unemployed men are more likely overall than women to engage in risky behaviour such as smoking or being inactive. The psychological shock of becoming unemployed and the uncertainty of the situation will also play a part. Some research also suggests that the strong cultural connection between work and masculine status means that the loss of employment may affect men’s sense of well-being more adversely than it does women. Men are also much less likely to use health services – working age men are 40 per cent less likely to visit their GP for example.
Men from lower socioeconomic backgrounds with fewer skills and qualifications, and men who are working in unstable, lower paid jobs, also experience another form of poor health premium. People in such situations are less likely to work in jobs with preventative interventions such as proper health and safety practices, suitable sickness absence policies, or that implement legally required workplace adjustments for people with long term conditions or disability. This will not only make it more likely that someone will fall out of the labour market as a result of ill health, but means that they are less resilient to the poor health consequences of unemployment.
Long term changes in the labour market have had an impact on the consequences of this relationship between male health and unemployment. With the rate male unemployment still not back to pre-recession levels, coupled with a rise in the number of people working in precarious forms of employment, the government must be ready to respond to the increased number of men who will have experienced worsened health over this period and ensure that they are not left behind as growth returns. Although recessions tend to actually improve the overall health of wealthy countries, as individuals have less disposable income to spend on unhealthy behaviours such as alcohol, it reduces the health of already disadvantaged sub groups and widens the health gap.
Poor health is an outcome of unemployment. Importantly, poor health is also a barrier to returning to and sustaining employment. It is therefore critical that this relationship is understood and addressed within back to work support. So far however this hasn’t been the case. So, what support can jobseekers currently receive? Whilst recent changes to the Jobcentre Plus (JCP) have introduced greater flexibility, there’s not much evidence that JCPs are using this to the best advantage to help address or prevent poor health in men. Only half of ESA claimants and a quarter of JSA claimants with a disability or health condition discussed health support options with their Jobcentre advisor, and this discussion did not always consider the potential suitability of job or job type.
The Work Programme continues to fail individuals claiming disability related benefit, and shows little sign of implementing preventative health support – discouraged by a tight payment by results funding structure that forces providers to focus on providing a minimum level of mainstream support.
There are clearly areas where health support for unemployed men can be better provided. The government must consider how ill-health in unemployed men could be prevented, and should be a part of back to work support provided through Jobcentre Plus. Not only does unemployment lead to poor health outcomes amongst men, but poor health hinders returning to work. Action to prevent poor health as soon as an individual claims an out of work benefit has the potential to be a cost saving intervention.
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Jenny Gulliford is Research and Policy Officer at the Work Foundation. Jenny has also worked for ERSA, the Employment Related Services Association, and for Full Fact, an independent fact-checking organisation. She holds a BA in History and Politics and an MA in International Relations of the Middle East, both from the University of Exeter.