Long-Term Unemployment Taking a Psychological Toll on Americans

Long-Term Unemployment Taking a Psychological Toll on AmericansAmerica’s ability to climb out of the Great Recession has far-reaching impact. It affects global recovery. It affects our jobless rate here at home. And now, we learn, the longer workers remain unemployed, the greater their risk for becoming depressed. This conclusion may not be rocket science, but the numbers clearly reveal a link between unemployment and mental health.

2013 Gallup Survey

In a Gallup telephone survey of 356,599 Americans, of whom 18,322 were adults without current employment, 13,352 reported being without work short-term (less than 27 weeks) and 4,970 had been without work long-term (27 weeks or longer). When asked if they were either depressed or being treated for depression, the responses broke down as follows:

  • Those unemployed under two weeks: 11 percent
  • Those unemployed 3-5 weeks: 10 percent
  • Those unemployed 6-11 weeks: 13 percent
  • Those unemployed 12-26 weeks: 15.7 percent
  • Those unemployed 27-51 weeks: 17 percent
  • Those unemployed for 52-plus weeks: 19 percent

Out-of-work Americans face greater than double the likelihood of being depressed or receiving treatment for depression compared with full-time workers. A little over 12 percent of the unemployed who were surveyed reported depression or treatment compared with just 5.9 percent of fully employed individuals. The rate for those who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer (long-term) was 18 percent.

Link or Cause?

Saying that there is a link between long-term unemployment and high rates of depression is not the same thing as saying that unemployment causes depression, the report suggests. It may be that people are depressed and therefore find it hard to become employed. Some employers will choose the upbeat candidate over the obviously depressed applicant. But this would be true whether the depression was a cause or effect. Chances are good that at least a portion of the association is actually causation. Psychological research connects lack of employment with a number of mental health problems including depression.

Why It’s Hard to Become Employed After a While

According to Gallup, 10.1 percent of all Americans are dealing with depression at any given time. Previous reporting from the polling company found that depression accounts for 68 million missed days at work over the number of days missed by those who are not depressed. This time off comes at a cost to employers of $23 billion each year. A significant number of individuals who become employed after long-term unemployment are once again without work in under a year. Could it be because these workers are depressed and depression leads to missed workdays? This too could explain why the longer a person goes without work, the tougher it becomes to convince employers to hire them.

There are other issues that make finding a job hard the longer a person has to look. For one thing, the longer they go without work, the more their work skills are likely to erode. This puts them at a disadvantage when competing for jobs. But it isn’t only work skills that slip. A person’s self-confidence and motivation also begins wavering over time. This could mean that they present a lackluster persona during interviews or that they give up altogether.

Not surprisingly, Gallup found the longer a person went without work, the less optimistic they felt about becoming employed any time soon. Among those unemployed for just two weeks, 69.9 percent believed they would have a job within one month. Just 30.1 percent said they did not believe they would become employed in that time. However, after 27 weeks, 59.8 percent did not believe they would acquire work in the coming four weeks while 40.2 percent were still hopeful.

Losing confidence is one of the unfortunate consequences of long-term unemployment, but that lack of confidence may also be a reflection of reality. A 2012 study found that employers were more likely to hire ill-qualified applicants who’d been unemployed under six months over better-qualified candidates who’d been looking for work longer than six months.

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