The impact on mental health of a badly paid, poorly supported, or short-term job can be as harmful as no job at all, according to a recent research report.
Because being in work is associated with better mental health than unemployment, government policies have tended to focus on the risks posed by joblessness, without necessarily considering the impact the quality of a job may have, according to the report authors.
Published online in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the research report, The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey, is based on a survey of 7,155 people of working age in Australia.
If in work, the "psychosocial" quality of their job was graded according to measures relating to demands and complexity, level of control and perceived job security, while respondents were also asked if they felt they received a fair wage for the work they did.
The research showed that those who were unemployed had poorer mental health overall than those in work.
It also indicated that employment is associated with better physical and mental health, and the mental health of those out of work tends to improve when they find a job, according to the report's six authors from The Australian National University's Centre for Mental Health, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health and The Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute.
But after taking into account of a range of factors with the potential to influence the results, such as educational attainment and marital status, the mental health of those who were jobless was comparable to, or often better than, that of people in work, but in poor quality jobs.
Those in the poorest quality jobs experienced the sharpest decline in mental health over time, and there was a direct linear association between the number of unfavourable working conditions experienced and mental health.
The research also found that the health benefits of finding a job after a period of being out of work depended on the quality of the post.
Paid work confers several benefits, including a defined social role and purpose, friendships, and structured time, but the authors said jobs which afford little control, are very demanding, and provide little support and reward, are not good for health.
"Work first policies are based on the notion that any job is better than none as work promotes economic as well as personal wellbeing," said the authors.
"Psychosocial job quality is a pivotal factor that needs to be considered in the design and delivery of employment and welfare policy."