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The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey
  1. P Butterworth1,
  2. L S Leach1,
  3. L Strazdins2,
  4. S C Olesen1,
  5. B Rodgers3,
  6. D H Broom2
  1. 1Centre for Mental Health Research, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  2. 2National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  3. 3The Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  1. Correspondence to P Butterworth, Centre for Mental Health Research, Bldg 63, Eggleston Rd, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia; peter.butterworth{at}


Objectives Although employment is associated with health benefits over unemployment, the psychosocial characteristics of work also influence health. We used longitudinal data to investigate whether the benefits of having a job depend on its psychosocial quality (levels of control, demands and complexity, job insecurity, and unfair pay), and whether poor quality jobs are associated with better mental health than unemployment.

Method Analysis of seven waves of data from 7,155 respondents of working age (44,019 observations) from a national household panel survey. Longitudinal regression models evaluated the concurrent and prospective association between employment circumstances (unemployment and employment in jobs varying in psychosocial job quality) and mental health, assessed by the MHI-5.

Results Overall, unemployed respondents had poorer mental health than those who were employed. However the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality. This pattern was evident in prospective models: those in the poorest quality jobs showed greater decline in mental health than those who were unemployed (B = 3.03, p<0.05). The health benefits of becoming employed were dependent on the quality of the job. Moving from unemployment into a high quality job led to improved mental health (mean change score of +3.3), however the transition from unemployment to a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed (−5.6 vs −1.0).

Conclusions Work of poor psychosocial quality does not bestow the same mental health benefits as employment in jobs with high psychosocial quality.

  • Mental health
  • psychiatry
  • epidemiology
  • stress
  • longitudinal studies

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  • This paper uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Project was initiated by the Australian government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (MIAESR). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the authors and should not be attributed to either FaHCSIA or the MIAESR.

  • Funding Financial support for this project was received from the Australian government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services, and Indigenous Affairs through the Social Policy Research Services Contract. PB and BR are funded by NHMRC Fellowships #525410 and #471429.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.