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Unemployed Americans fill in job applications.MARK RALSTON/AFP / Getty Images

Is unemployment a bane or a boost to your health? Can taking a lousy job out of desperation be even worse for you?

As the latest employment statistics show joblessness remaining stubbornly high in Canada, a flurry of new studies offer seemingly conflicting advice on how a stint out of the saddle can clobber your health and well-being.

Here's a reality check and experts' advice on what to do about it:

THE FINDING

Being unemployed brings a higher risk of death, concludes new research by Eran Shor, associate professor of sociology at McGill University in Montreal, done with associates at Stony Brook University in New York. Over all, a stint of only a few months unemployed increases the risk of premature mortality by 63 per cent, the study concluded.

The facts:

Men have a higher risk than women, (78 per cent vs. 37 per cent), and younger people at the beginning of their careers are at more risk of early death from unemployment than older workers who are nearing retirement age, Prof. Shor said.

The survey looked at results of 42 previous studies that included a total of 20 million people in 15 countries over the past 40 years. "One surprising finding was that, in spite of expectations that a better health-care system might contribute to lower mortality rates, the correlation between unemployment and a higher risk of death was the same in all the countries covered by the study," she said.

The bottom line:

Unemployment creates high stress and social disconnections that can make individuals more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs and lack of income that could result in poorer diets, Prof. Shor concluded. And those effects can linger. "They dissipate, but they don't disappear when you find a job," because you developed bad habits that may be hard to break.

"This suggests that governments should put a higher priority on stress management programs for the unemployed, as well as programs that target awareness of risky behaviours and, of course, more programs that help people find jobs and take care of them when they don't have a job."

THE FINDING

The average death rate for middle-aged Canadians declines during times of high unemployment.

The facts:

An analysis of Statistics Canada data on death rates and unemployment from 1977 to 2009 found that every 1-per-cent increase in the jobless rate cuts the predicted mortality rate of people in their thirties by almost 2 per cent. A bad economy also coincides with a lower death rate for women close to retirement, according to the study by Wilfrid Laurier University economics professors Hideki Ariizumi and Tammy Schirle, which appeared in the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network last month.

The bottom line:

The phenomenon suggests that people may be more aware of the need to avoid risks when times are bad and generally take better care of themselves, such as exercising more, Prof. Ariizumi suggested.

This finding doesn't contradict the finding that unemployment can be a killer, he said. "The difference is in the level of analysis - on the individual level unemployment is harmful for one's health. On the national level, higher unemployment rates do not necessarily have the same effect."

THE FINDING

A badly paid, poorly supported, or insecure job, can be as harmful or worse for mental health than being unemployed.

The facts:

Peter Butterworth, of the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University, led a study of data about than 7,000 people of working age, from a household survey conducted every year in Australia.

The analysis found that unemployed people had poorer mental health than those who were employed, which is perhaps not surprising. But the analysis also found that those with the poorest-quality jobs showed a greater decline in mental health than those who were unemployed. Employed people had an average score of 75.1 in the analysis. Those who moved from unemployment to a good job showed an increase in their score of 3.3 points and those taking a bad job saw their score drop 5.6 points below average. Respondents that remained unemployed had a drop of only one point.

The bottom line:

"The findings run counter to a common belief that any job offers psychological benefits for individuals over the demoralizing effects of unemployment," Dr. Butterworth said.

"In the same way that we no longer accept workplaces that are physically unsafe or in which employees are exposed to dangerous or toxic substances, there could be a greater focus on ensuring a more positive psychosocial environment at work" such as levels of control, demands and complexity of the work, managerial supports and fair pay, he concluded.

THE FINDING

Those who have jobs but don't feel engaged by them score worse on five key measures of well being than those who are unemployed.

The facts:

A Gallup Daily tracking survey asked 1,266 American adults about their experiences and emotions such as enjoyment, smiling or laughing, learning something interesting, being treated with respect, and feeling well-rested.

Those whose answers showed they were emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace rated their experiences less enjoyable than those who were unemployed, with 42 per cent of those who were disengaged rating themselves as thriving, compared with 48 per cent of the unemployed and 71 per cent who rated themselves as involved and enthusiastic about their work.

The bottom line:

The disengaged were the least likely to say they felt well-rested and that they were treated with respect and smiled or laughed the day before the survey. Employees who are not engaged or not emotionally connected to their workplaces are less likely to put in discretionary effort and can jeopardize the performance of their teams, the study concluded.

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THE HEALTH RISKS

A look at the health toll that unemployment can take:

Anxious or obsessive behaviour: Uncertainty around your retirement investments, job security or how you're going to pay mounting debt can leave you feeling uneasy, jittery or prone to repetitive behaviour.

Sleepless nights: Stress is linked to insomnia, which is linked to weight gain, depression and, research suggests, can make you up to five times more likely to suffer from high blood pressure.

Depression: The constant tension of your unemployment can drag you emotionally down into a depressed state where solutions seem far off and feelings of sadness and disconnectedness prevail.

Poor eating habits: Your daily habits are more likely to change during tense times where making healthy food choices becomes less of a priority and can also seem more expensive. Excess caffeine can also create a vicious cycle, leaving you jittery and agitated during the day and unable to sleep at night.

Heart problems: Cardiologists suggest stress, anxiety and depression from unemployment could result in such things as higher heart rate, elevated blood pressure and even hardening of the arteries.

Escape to a vice: The greater the stress, the more likely people will try to "escape" the reality of their situation with drugs or alcohol or gambling, which can affect the sufferer as well as those around them.

Source: Employees assistance provider Morneau Shepell Inc.

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BETWEEN-JOB TIPS

Here's a prescription for staying healthy between jobs from Dr. David Posen, a stress specialist in Oakville, Ont.:

Seek company: People who suffer alone suffer a lot. It is a time when you could reconnect with people not just to get a job but just to have people who like you, value you and give you encouragement. But don't just use the encounters to vent. Talk about other topics while doing enjoyable activities.

Keep a routine: Getting a job is your job now so treat it with a schedule and daily agenda of times for having meetings and doing research but also book in down time as well. Your sense of achievement and control will rise as a result.

Focus on achievement: Keep a bit of a diary where you can see the effort you are putting in and review it to see that you are making momentum.

Find diversions: Hobbies, outings with friends, music and games or puzzles will break a cycle of worry and lighten your mood.

Work on potential: There's more time in your day now, look into training and skills upgrading that can make you more valuable.

Find mentors: Talk to people in industry events or in self-help groups who have been through a job hiatus and know what it's like. Their insights on getting through it can be useful as well as inspiring.

Eat properly: Proper nutrition keeps up your energy and mental state. Avoid fatty foods that can increase secretion of stress hormones. Fruits and vegetables are essential for replacing vitamins and minerals the body uses up in counteracting stress.

Sleep on it: When people are not punching a clock they have the opportunity to get the sleep they need. Just avoid the risk of oversleeping, which can add to depression and reduce your energy level when you are awake.

Keep moving: Daily exercise is crucial for stress reduction and energy production. It improves mood and helps people look better. In an uncertain time, your exercise regimen is also an area of your life where you have control.

Consider professional help: If you're having a rough time, you may be able to get counselling through the employee assistance plan of your former employer or through your family doctor.

Wallace Immen

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