How a Weak Economy May Be Hurting Our Health

After Susan Joyce was laid off from Digital Equipment Corp., she was horrified to hear of two suicides in her layoff group. Then she learned about a colleague who stabbed his wife to death and hung himself. "I worked with him for 10 years, maybe more," says Joyce. "He seemed like a nice guy."

These cases may sound extreme, but being fired or laid off is undeniably one of life's biggest blows and can lead to clinical depression, violence and alcohol abuse, as well as strokes and heart attacks. Even the fear of losing a job produces more doctor visits and health worries. In short, the recent news about rising unemployment and job insecurity may be bad news for our health.

Layoffs create a sense of hopelessness. Stress-related complaints such as insomnia and headaches tend to follow, lingering even after victims find new jobs, says University of Michigan psychologist Richard Price, who tracked more than 700 layoff victims for two years. Research based on 17 years of Pennsylvania unemployment records concluded that employees affected by a mass layoff at a plant were 15 percent more likely to die of any cause over the next two decades. Experts blame the cascade of misfortune that often ensues after a layoff, including the loss of health insurance.

Your health can suffer simply from fear of losing your job, says Sarah Burgard, a sociologist at the University of Michigan. After crunching data from two large national surveys, she concluded that chronic job insecurity over a two-year period rivals the anxiety of a job loss or a major illness. Burgard adjusted her data for what psychologists call "neuroticism" and found that even people who aren't typically worriers report worse health when they believe their jobs are in danger. Fears of poor job prospects may have similar consequences. When Swedish researchers asked 21-year-olds about their health during a recession, they reported more problems than a comparison group during a boom.

Economic stress may even show up in national public-health measures, although experts disagree about how to calculate those effects. Harvey Brenner, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins's Bloomberg School of Public Health and a professor of public health at the University of North Texas, argues that the 1 percentage point increase in unemployment since a year ago could have serious health repercussions for the next two years. According to Brenner's projections, there could be as many as 47,000 more deaths than would have otherwise occurred, including 1,200 more suicides, as well as nearly 26,000 more heart attacks. Should unemployment continue to rise, these numbers are likely to increase too, he says.

If your stomach starts churning when you hear bad economic news, Susan Joyce, who now runs a job-hunting Web site, has some tips. Start a discreet search as soon as you see danger signs in your current position. Prepare financially by cutting costs and building up adversity funds. Get help if you or a loved one can't shake the blues. Watch for signs of depression: changes in eating and sleeping habits, significant changes in weight, loss of interest in sex or other pleasures. And, if possible, make health insurance a priority, as you may be more vulnerable to illness.

Gloomy forecasts aside, there can be health benefits during tough times. Ralph Catalano, a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that some people seek help for neglected medical problems and cut back on risky behaviors like problem drinking in order to stay employed or make themselves more employable. Call it personal recessionproofing.