Background: Although the unemployment rate in Germany is currently low, more than a million persons in the country have been out of work for more than a year. In this review article, we address these persons' state of health, the effect of unemployment on health, and the influence of macroeconomic factors and social policy.
Methods: This article is based on a selective review of pertinent literature in the PubMed database.
Results: Large-scale meta-analyses and systematic reviews have shown that the long-term unemployed have an at least twofold risk of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety disorders, compared to employed persons. Their mortality is 1.6-fold higher. Unemployment seems to be not only an effect of illness, but also a cause of it (i.e., there is evidence for both selection and causality). Learned helplessness is an important psychological explanatory model. Limited evidence indicates that the long-term unemployed have a moderately elevated prevalence of alcoholism; unemployment can be both an effect and a cause of alcoholism. Unemployment also seems to be associated with higher risks of heart attack and stroke. Cancer can lead to loss of employment. The link between unemployment and poorer health is strengthened by macroeconomic crises and weakened by governmental social interventions.
Conclusion: The long-term unemployed carry a markedly higher burden of disease, particularly mental illness, than employed persons and those who are unemployed only for a short time. The burden of disease increases with the duration of unemployment. The vicious circle of unemployment and disease can be broken only by the combined effects of generally available health care, special health-promoting measures among the unemployed, and social interventions.