| Short-term work, long-term stress

Study finds health inequalities in the workplace and argues need for fringe benefits

The type of employment that you hold may be bad for your health. According to research conducted by McGill Sociology and Epidemiology Professor Amelie Quesnel-Vallee, those who enter into temporary or short-term contract work have a greater chance of developing mental health issues than those who have a permanent relationship with their employer.

The research, conducted using data from the 1979 U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, studied a cohort of individuals who were then between the ages of 14 and 21; subjects were surveyed annually or biannually until 2002. Quesnel-Vallee had previously worked in a cross-nation study analyzing workers in France and the U.S. After that study concluded that contingent workers were more likely than permanent workers to have low wages and to be unemployed, Quesnel-Vallee’s interest in temporary work was piqued.

“I was interested in health inequalities, and saw this as an opportunity to see what the impact [of contingent work] was,” says Quesnel-Vallee.

It seems that the impact is significant. Individuals were surveyed about how frequently they experienced seven symptoms, all physiological markers of depression, such as lack of sleep or appetite. These answers were then coded, with a four indicating very frequent experience of a given symptom and zero signifying no experience. Temporary workers, even those who experienced steady employment in temporary positions, scored an average of 1.5 points higher than the rest of the population in all categories.

The implications of this study are notable for both workers and employers across North America. According to Quesnel-Vallee, employers often create temporary positions to sidestep the legal requirement of providing fringe benefits for permanent workers.

“The greater the fringe benefits and protection for workers [in a country], the greater the use of temporary positions to circumvent them is,” says Quesnel-Vallee.

This logic holds true, as four to five per cent of American jobs are temporary, compared to seven per cent of Canadian positions, Canada being a country that casts a wider social net around its workers. Employers in Quebec use contingent positions even more frequently.

Although employers use these positions in order to cut costs and increase efficiency, the absenteeism caused by employee strain may in fact do just the opposite. Around 50 per cent of all absenteeism in Quebec is mental-health related. Those jobs that are a detriment to employees’ mental health are also likely to post low-efficency rates.

For Quesnel-Vellee, her findings lead to a clear and distinct conclusion: “The bottom line is you have to care for your workforce.”

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