Case study

Unemployment and psychological well-being

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Author: Cara Booker, University of Essex, and Amanda Sacker. Cara Booker is a senior research officer at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. Her research interests include psychosocial determinants of chronic disease and social and cultural issues affecting diabetic and cancer patients.Amanda Sacker is a research professor at ISER. Her research interests include longitudinal studies of health outcomes and physical and mental health inequalities.

Date: 8 August 2011

Type of case study: Research

About the research

The study examined the effects of multiple episodes of unemployment on psychological well-being.

Specifically, it looked to analyse whether people adapt or become sensitised to repeated unemployment and if previous employment status affects a person's response to being unemployed.

The researchers found that, unsurprisingly, unemployment is associated with a worsening of psychological well-being, with each unemployment spell associated with poorer mental health. However, the magnitude of the deterioration differs by previous employment status. Generally, previously employed individuals were able to adapt with each spell if they were able to regain employment each time, while those who make several attempts to re-enter the labour market following economic inactivity had a more difficult time, becoming more distressed with each try.

The findings indicate that further investigation is needed to better understand how welfare-to-work programmes may affect the psychological well-being of economically inactive individuals who are encouraged to seek employment. The study suggests that programmes that aim to reduce the number of economically inactive persons in the UK, like the newly implemented UK 'fit note', the Health, Work and Well-being initiative, and the proposed changes to the current welfare scheme, should take into account the psychological impact of failures to achieve employment. 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.

About the data

The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) has been conducted annually since 1991 on a nationally representative sample of more than 5,000 households. Every adult 16 years or older within the sampled household is interviewed. This study included only those individuals who reported at least one period of unemployment during their participation in the BHPS. Other variables such as self-reported annual household income, regional unemployment, percent of unemployed adults in household, pre-study unemployment and partnership status were included as potential effect modifiers.

The General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) is a self-reported questionnaire that measures psychological states and screens for minor psychiatric conditions. This study used the GHQ-12 version, a short 12-question streamlined version of the assesment specifically targeted toward research use.


The research used waves 1-17 of the BHPS, including only those persons who experienced at least one unemployment spell during their participation in the BHPS. Self-reported employment status and the GHQ-12 coded as a continuous 36-point scale were employed as the outcome variables. Self-reported annual household income, regional unemployment rated, percent of unemployed adults in household, pre-study unemployment and partnership status were all explored as potential effect modifiers. Age and gender were also included as covariates and effect modifiers.

Multilevel regression models were used to analyse the data. Two models were constructed, the first examined within-person changes while the second examined both between- and within-person variables as well as potential effect modifiers of the within-person effects.

Publications and outputs

This work is in press in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The online first edition is available.

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