How to Stay Healthy When You’re Out of a Job

Smiling volunteer planting tree in woods.
Volunteering or becoming more involved in the community can be good for your mental and emotional health. (Getty Images)
It’s bad enough that you’re out of a job.
But as the saying goes, when it rains it pours. Case in point: Research shows that job loss can have detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental well-being.
“A large body of evidence shows that unemployment is harmful to health,” says Dr. Paula Braveman, a professor of family and community medicine in the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and director of UCSF’s Center on Social Disparities in Health. “But not surprisingly it depends on a number of factors, including how much wealth (accumulated financial assets – savings) and social support someone has to fall back on, and the length of unemployment.”
Certainly poor health can affect a person’s ability to stay in the workforce as well, just as employment status can impact health. “But longitudinal studies (following people over decades and measuring their health at the beginning and at the end, along with describing their employment circumstances throughout) have shown that losing work because of poor health does not account for the powerful and pervasive associations between unemployment and health,” Braveman points out.
Being without a job – particularly for a prolonged period – can have a profound effect on a person’s mind and body, from raising the risk for depression and increasing anxiety levels to contributing to chronic stress; long-lasting stress is linked with everything from high blood pressure to increased heart attack risk.
Beyond the direct psychological and physiologic impact that being unemployed may have, job loss has also been linked to key behavioral changes that can undermine well-being. “It’s much harder to take care of oneself and maintain healthy habits when you’re going through major life stressors – particularly ones that can strain your budget,” says Kate Strully, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. “So people may stop eating as well, may forgo exercise … and may take less proper care of managing chronic conditions [like] diabetes.”


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Strully did research evaluating the potential for job loss to impact health, which was published in the journal Demography in 2009. “I looked at these people who lost their jobs because of establishment closures in national representative data and found that they did have worse self-assessed health – in the sense that they described their health in worse terms – and they also were more likely to have chronic health conditions that tend to be linked to stress,” she says.
Her study didn’t focus on why – or the mechanisms by which – losing a job can impact health. But other research indicates this can happen in a number of ways (like when stress leads to unhealthy behaviors). “The first, which is really kind of obvious, is the socioeconomic shock – you lose your income, possibly your health insurance. For many people jobs are also a big part of your status and identity, and that can be a major stressor,” Strully notes. Another factor is the loss of social network, as well as a daily routine. “Lots of us – our social ties are linked to work, and so there can be a loss of that connection as well,” she says.
But just as we often build social networks through our place of work, experts suggest those who find themselves unemployed turn to their established networks outside of work, such as friends and family, for support. “One of the things that the literature on stress and health outcomes shows over and over again is that the negative effects of stress on people’s health tend to be reduced when people have strong social support networks,” Strully notes, “when people have supportive relationships and people in their lives that they can rely on.”
When you’re in the job hunt, it’s also important to “tune into your other roles,” recommends Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist based in Mill Valley, California, and author of “The Stress-Proof Brain." Consciously think about other areas of your life that are going well, or where you get some meaning or validation, she says – “like your role as a community member or family member.” Consider volunteering or otherwise getting more involved in the community; such connectivity has been shown to be good for a person’s mental and emotional health, and Greenberg says it may even help some in making connections that benefit their job search.
The point is certainly not to push the job search to the backburner, but to supplement and balance your day. Submitting resume after resume and networking can be unrewarding and stressful and may trigger bad feelings about yourself, Greenberg says. “You need to do it, because that’s going to move you forward.” But, she says, you also need to set aside periods of the day to do other things, like exercising. Aim to strike “a balance between feeling productive and also feeling like you can take a break from this very severe kind of stress without feeling guilty,” she says.