Background: Workforce participation is a key feature of public mental health and social inclusion policies across the globe, and often a therapeutic goal in treatment settings. Understanding the reciprocal relationship between participation and mental health has been limited by inadequate research methods. This is the first study to simultaneously examine and contrast the relative effects of unemployment on mental health and mental health on employment status in a single general population sample.
Method: Data were from working-age respondents (20 to 55 years at baseline) who completed nine waves of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey (N=7176). Cross-lagged path analyses were used to test the lagged and concurrent associations between unemployment and mental health over time, adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics.
Results: Mental health was shown to be both a consequence of and risk factor for unemployment. Thus, the poorer mental health observed amongst people who are not working is attributable to both the impact of unemployment and existing mental health problems. While the strength of these two effects was similar for women, the results for men suggested that the effect of unemployment on subsequent mental health was weaker than the effect of mental health on subsequent risk of unemployment.
Conclusion: Disentangling the reciprocal links between mental health and workforce participation is central to the development and success of clinical goals and health and social policies that aim to promote either aspect. This study demonstrates that both effects are important and supports concurrent responses to prevent a cycle of disadvantage and entrenched social exclusion.