Is No Job Better Than a Bad Job?

The type of job you get after being unemployed can have a significant impact on your health, a new study shows. Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Many people have had a job that makes them miserable. Maybe the hours are erratic or long, the work soul-crushing, the employer thankless, the pay dismal. But still, that's better than sitting at home with no pay at all, right? Maybe not, according to a new study out of the University of Manchester.

Prior research has found that unemployment is linked to health risks, like smoking and depression, and is even associated with higher mortality rates. And getting a job after being unemployed has been shown to have positive effects on health and quality of life.


Yet, the authors of the current study found that people who were previously unemployed and moved into "poor-quality" jobs (those with low pay, low job satisfaction, low job stability and high job anxiety) did not see improvements in health or lower levels of stress compared to those who stayed unemployed.

The researchers used data on 1,116 British adults from "Understanding Society," a longitudinal study on life in the U.K. They found that transitioning into a "good job" was associated with improved mental health as compared to staying unemployed. Mental health was the same for those who got a poor-quality job and those who remained jobless.

But here's the surprising finding: By analyzing levels of stress through hormones and other biomarkers (substances in the body whose presence indicate disease) like blood pressure and cholesterol, the researchers determined that working a "bad job" was associated with higher levels of chronic stress indicators than remaining unemployed. The researchers even pointed out that these biomarkers can be present before overt symptoms of ill health manifest, so it's possible that people self-report better health perceptions than markers would indicate.

This result is unexpected, considering many people may assume that any job is better than no job. The researchers don't say that unemployed folks should sit and wait for the perfect job, though. Being unemployed can present huge mental health challenges, and can even adversely affect some cultural groups more than others. The researchers suggest people use their findings about the adverse health effects of poor jobs to work with their employers and doctors to ensure a healthier working environment.