May 26, 2020

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Opinion

The human cost of pandemic job losses

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GOVERNMENTS need to keep the non-monetary aspects of work in mind while supporting those rendered jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concern about COVID-19 has ravaged Canada’s labour market. Staggering unemployment numbers and the number of applicants for federal aid for laid-off workers dominate headlines.

The unprecedented effort to make up for lost wages has been admirable and sorely needed. But losing a job — a reality millions of Canadians face — involves far more than a loss of income. At a time of severe financial distress, it’s easy to forget that in the longer term, work is about more than money.

Many of the unemployment studies researchers reviewed for a Cardus report on the non-financial aspects of work examine populations experiencing forced mass layoffs, often in the form of plant closures. These situations closely resemble the current crisis.

Almost all of us, as employers, employees or those who’ve lost jobs, are experiencing what research makes clear: losing a job is bad for your physical and mental health.

The list of negative physical health effects linked to job loss and unemployment is long and varied. A recent review of the literature concludes, "Both short- and long-term declines in physical health, including worse self-reported health, physical disability, cardiovascular disease, greater number of reported medical conditions, increase in hospitalization, higher use of medical services, higher use of disability benefits, increase in self-destructive behaviours and suicide, and mortality."

Those who are unemployed also have lower levels of psychological well-being, are more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, and report lower life satisfaction and happiness compared to their employed counterparts.

The increased risk of physical and mental health problems facing the ballooning unemployed population is likely to compound the strain that hospitals already face.

In the most extreme cases, at least one study shows job loss can increase risk "of overall mortality and mortality caused by circulatory disease; of suicide and suicide attempts; and of death and hospitalization due to traffic accidents, alcohol-related disease, and mental illness."

The burden is heaviest on those laid off, but also falls on employers forced to let people go because cash flow has dried up. No one wants to go there, but it’s the terrible impasse that COVID-19 forces us to face.

Families and communities feel the harmful effects of job loss, too. A family struck by unemployment is more likely to experience divorce and domestic violence. The negative effects of a parent’s job loss on a child — including greater risks of struggling at school, abuse, and neglect — have been detected by researchers even decades later.

While family breakdown is traumatic enough in ordinary circumstances, being cooped up at home indefinitely can exacerbate the problem. Joblessness also frays our wider social fabric: someone who’s out of work is less likely to be involved in their community or volunteer than someone with a stable job.

Regardless of how we feel about our jobs, work (or the lack of it) is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Before the pandemic, many of us spent more of our waking hours at the office or job site than at home. Losing work has meant a sudden upending of both income and the rhythms of life.

Benefit cheques can help absorb the immediate financial shock, but they can’t replace the identity, community and meaning work brings.

Yet there are glimmers of hope. One of the most encouraging responses to the upheaval created by social distancing has been the surge of interest in alternative kinds of productive labour, such as baking bread, gardening, making face masks or turning breweries into sanitizer factories — more evidence that work has more than a monetary appeal.

As governments respond to COVID-19, they need to think about the non-financial consequences of being out of work.

Behind every Canada Emergency Response Benefit application is a human — a person with a body, a sense of dignity, a family, a community and a life turned upside own, not just a bank account.

Our policies need to treat them that way.

Johanna Wolfert is a researcher at the think-tank Cardus.

— Troy Media

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