Being on a temporary or zero-hours contract is bad for your wellbeing, especially if you’re young

Two major new studies claim to show the impact of temporary or insecure work on the wellbeing of people, especially younger workers. Research into the lives of 7,700 people from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) suggests that young adults who are employed on zero-hours contracts are less likely to be in good health, and are at higher risk of poor mental health than workers with stable jobs. Meanwhile, an analysis from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and Business in the Community suggests that younger workers (born since 1982) in part-time and temporary work – or who are underemployed and/or overqualified – are more likely to experience poorer mental health and wellbeing, compared to younger workers in more permanent and secure work.

The IPPR analysis claims that younger workers in temporary jobs are 29 percent more likely to experience mental health problems, compared to those in permanent jobs (22 percent compared to 17 percent). It also finds that 1 in 5 younger graduates who are in jobs for which they are overqualified report being anxious or depressed (22 percent) – compared to 16 percent of graduates in professional/managerial jobs.

The report shows how, over the past 25 years, there has been growth in the proportion of jobs in the UK which are not permanent and/or full-time (despite renewed growth in full-time work since 2012). It also finds that, compared to previous generations of younger workers, millennials are marginally more likely to be in atypical and/or insecure forms of work.

  • 1 in 4 younger workers are in part-time work (26 percent in 2014, compared to 24 percent in 2004)
  • 1 in 11 younger workers are in temporary work (9 percent in 2014, compared to 9 percent in 2004)
  • 1 in 11 younger workers are self-employed (9 percent in 2014, compared to 7 percent in 2004)
  • 13 percent of younger workers are graduates working in non-professional / managerial jobs – almost double the rate compared to 2004 (7 percent)
  • 1 in 5 younger workers aged 16-24 are underemployed (19 percent) – more than double the rate among workers aged 25 and above

The report’s other key findings include:

  • Younger workers in part-time jobs are 43 percent more likely to experience mental health problems compared to those in full-time jobs (20 percent compared to 14 percent).
  • Younger workers in part-time jobs are also 33 percent more likely than those in full-time jobs to fall within the bottom 10 percent of the English adult population according to mental wellbeing (aged 16 and above).
  • Younger workers in part-time jobs are 7 percentage points less likely than those in full-time jobs to report being satisfied with their life, even when controlling for variables including household income and prior life satisfaction.
  • Younger workers on zero-hours contracts are 13 percentage points more likely than those in other forms of work to experience mental health problems, even when controlling for variables including household income and mental health outcomes during adolescence.
  • Younger workers who believe themselves to have more than a 50 percent chance of losing their job are twice as likely to experience mental health problems compared to those with no chance of losing their job (24 percent compared to 12 percent).
  • The proportion of employees aged 21-25 who were in low-paid work increased by 82 percent between 1990 and 2015.
  • Employees aged 18-29 are twice as likely as those aged 50-59 to describe their current mental health as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ (16 percent compared to 8 percent)
  • 21 percent of younger workers on low-pay experience mental health problems, compared to 16 per cent of those who are not on low pay

Meanwhile, researchers from the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) analysed data on more than 7,700 people living in England who were born in 1989-90 and are being followed by a study called Next Steps. They found that at age 25, people on zero-hours contracts and those who were unemployed were less likely to report feeling healthy, compared to those in more secure employment.

Those with zero-hours contracts were also at greater risk of reporting symptoms of psychological distress. However, young adults who were unemployed were more than twice as likely to suffer from mental ill health compared to those who were in work. And, although shift workers were at no greater risk than those working regular hours to be in poor health, they were more likely to have psychological problems.

The lead author, Dr Morag Henderson, said:  “Millennials have faced a number of challenges as they entered the world of work. They joined the labour market at the height of the most recent financial crisis and faced higher than ever university fees and student loan debt. There is evidence that those with a precarious relationship to the labour market, such as shift workers, zero-hours contract holders and the unemployed are more at risk of poor mental health and physical health than their peers.

“One explanation for these findings is that financial stress or the stress associated with having a low-status job increases the risk of poor mental health. It may also be that the worry of having no work or irregular work triggers physical symptoms of stress, including chest pain, headaches and muscle tension.”

Two thirds of 25-year-olds were employed full-time, 1 in 8 (12 percent) were employed part time, and 7 per cent were unemployed. Around a quarter (23 percent) worked shifts, and 5 percent had zero-hours contracts.

By occupation, the largest proportion of young adults (15 percent) were in professional roles, such as teachers, engineers and accountants. A further 14 percent had professional support roles, including paramedics, librarians and pharmacists, 9 percent were in administrative or secretarial occupations and 8 per cent had manual roles, such as general labourers and forestry workers.

The findings took into account background factors such as gender, ethnicity, social class, prior mental health, sleep duration, frequency of exercise and weight.

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