The on-going misery caused by the global financial crisis, and current widespread fears over job security, is likely to affect those still in employment as much as those who ultimately lose their jobs, according to a leading Lancaster-based academic.
Dr Stuart Whitaker, senior lecturer in occupational health at the University of Cumbria, says research suggests that job insecurity has a damaging effect on people's health and wellbeing and in previous studies has been associated with increased use of GP's surgeries and hospital appointments, particularly by men. Some studies have also linked higher rates of smoking, drinking and drug use, as well as separation and divorce to job insecurity.
"Employees who are afraid of losing their jobs enter a damaging 'anticipatory' phase where they are aware their position is under threat, but have no further knowledge," Dr Whitaker explains. "During this phase, people may experience low-level anxiety, disturbed sleep and changes in behaviour, such as increased drinking and smoking.
"Research has also shown that this could result in increased medical appointments and ailments, resulting in a corresponding increase in the strain on NHS resources. The employing organisation may also feel the impact in terms of worsening industrial relations, employee disengagement and reduced motivation to attend work and do well.
"However, when employers are made redundant or sacked, they move out of the 'anticipatory' phase into a 'termination' phase and begin to deal with the consequences, rather than worrying about them. Surprisingly, the termination phase seems to be less damaging on the health of workers than the uncertainty of anticipating major change. That being the case, employers have an important role to play in helping to avoid the most damaging effects of job insecurity.
"When they are making the decision as to how best to manage a difficult situation where job losses or insecurity are present, they must give serious consideration to the potential affects their decisions will have on the health of their workforce."
Dr Whitaker says if the anticipatory phase is allowed to continue for long periods, more serious signs and symptoms can arise. Past research has shown raised blood pressure, an increased risk of coronary heart disease, mental health problems and even increased rates of cancer to have been associated with job insecurity.
"It may sound obvious," he concludes, "but the key to reducing the potential health risks is honesty. People find it difficult to deal with the unknown and in health terms it's fair to say that bad news is better than no news."
Dr Stuart Whitaker is involved in research, teaching and consultancy work in the field of occupational health, at the University of Cumbria and recently was invited to present his paper on job insecurity and its adverse health effects at a research seminar in Penang, Malaysia, indicating that this is not a problem faced by workers in the UK but an international problem.