A team of scientists in Australia has recently investigated the health condition of Australian citizens who lost jobs during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The study findings reveal that job loss is associated with a deterioration in mental health but an improvement in physical health. Importantly, retaining employment has shown a positive impact on the overall mental health condition. The study is currently available on the medRxiv* preprint server.

Study: Changes in work and health of Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal cohort study. Image Credit: Maridav / Shutterstock

Background

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has put a tremendous burden on the economy and health of many countries worldwide. Because of the pandemic-related restrictions, millions of people have lost their jobs involuntarily. Such sudden economic shutdown has considerably impacted the overall mental and physical wellbeing of the general global population.

With the progression of pandemic and subsequent rolling out of vaccines, many countries are now withdrawing restrictions to boost the economy, leading to a resumption of employment at the individual level. In general, there is evidence indicating that unemployment has a significant negative impact on both mental and physical health conditions of affected individuals. However, in the context of pandemic conditions like COVID-19, not enough studies have been done to correlate between involuntary loss of jobs and the overall wellbeing of the working population.

In the current study, the scientists have evaluated how unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the health conditions of the Australian working population. In addition, they have studied whether returning to work at the later phase of the pandemic has any positive influence on health.

Study design

This longitudinal study was conducted on Australian adults who were employed prior to the pandemic but lost their jobs early in the pandemic. A group of working individuals was also included in the study as a control group. A total of 2,603 participants completed the baseline survey between March and June 2020. Of them, 2,151 participants completed the follow-up surveys conducted at 1, 3, and 6 months after the baseline analysis.

Three health conditions, including psychological distress, mental health, and physical health, were assessed in the survey. Overall, the survey was designed to evaluate four specific questions: 1) “Does being out of work early in the pandemic affect health six months later?”; 2) “Do health impacts differ for people not working if they are employed?”; 3) “What are the health impacts of changes in exposure to work?”; and 4) “How does the longitudinal context of changes in work effect health?”

Important observations

According to the survey findings, higher levels of psychological distress, poorer mental health, and better physical health were observed in unemployed participants compared to that in employed participants at baseline. The same health conditions continued for 6 months. However, after 6 months, a rapid deterioration in physical health was observed among unemployed participants. In contrast, the physical health of employed participants showed deterioration after 6 months compared to that at baseline.

Throughout the survey period, an association between unemployment and poorer mental health condition was observed. In addition, a difference in health outcomes was observed between unemployed participants and employed but not working participants. Specifically, employed but not currently working participants exhibited higher psychological distress and poorer mental health than working participants. In contrast, better physical health status was observed among not working participants compared to that in working participants.

Regarding persistent health effects, the highest levels of distress and mental health deterioration and low levels of physical health were observed among participants who experienced sustained unemployment. A relatively lesser impact of work loss on mental health was observed in participants who were previously working but currently not working.

A more prominent negative impact of unemployment on mental health was observed in participants who experienced work loss more acutely. Importantly, the highest levels of mental and physical health were observed in participants who sustained their working status during the pandemic. However, participants who recently returned to work exhibited the lowest levels of physical health, which improved gradually over time.

Study significance

The study describes the changes in mental and physical health conditions experienced by Australian citizens due to COVID-19 pandemic-related alteration in employment status. The study findings highlight that both acute and sustained work loss have a severe negative impact on mental health. A gradual improvement in mental health and a temporary deterioration in physical health have been observed among participants who recently returned to work.

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.



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