Precarious employment may affect worker health

In brief

  • In most developed countries, there has been an increase in the number of employment arrangements that are temporary and insecure. There are concerns that these employment arrangements may have adverse effects on the health of workers.
  • In a longitudinal study of a representative sample of Canadian workers, certain work characteristics associated with precarious employment—i.e. low pay, no pay increase, substantial unpaid overtime, no pension and manual work—put workers at increased risk of poor physical health.

Published: January 2011

Why was this study done?

Globalization, trade competition and rapid technological innovation are changing the nature of work. Job security is giving way to precarious work arrangements. Precarious employment tends to fall short in areas such as certainty about continuing work, control over work, legal protection, adequate income and benefits, job status and job safety.

Although a lot has been written about the rise of precarious employment, less research has been done to determine its effects on worker health. This study explored the health effects of being exposed to several aspects of precarious employment.

How was the study done?

Researchers used data from Statistics Canada’s Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID) from 1999 to 2004. SLID enrols a sample of people who are followed over time and each year provide information on personal characteristics, job factors and self-reported health. The researchers studied a sample of 4,491 people who met the following criteria: 25 to 54 years of age, not a full-time student, employed at least nine months of the year, not self-employed, not a manager, and in good, very good or excellent health at the beginning of the year.

The researchers then looked at the self-reported health of these people during subsequent years and compared it to those aspects of their work linked to precarious employment. Precarious employment was determined using measures such as level of job permanence, irregular schedule, substantial unpaid overtime, involuntary part-time work, no union coverage, low earnings, no annual pay increase, no pension coverage, no supervisory responsibilities and manual work.

What did the researchers find?

People in part-time or contract work did not report poorer health in subsequent years. However, those exposed to other work characteristics associated with precarious employment did report poorer general health or functional limitations in subsequent years.

The study provides evidence that exposure to precarious employment arrangements could have a negative effect on the health of workers. The researchers call for regulatory initiatives and comprehensive benefits programs to address the potential health effects of the changing labour market.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

By including only workers who were in good health at the beginning of the study period, the researchers helped ensure the results reflect the effect of precarious employment on health, rather than the possibility that poor health leads people to accept precarious work. Limitations include the inability of the study to measure particular dimensions of precarious work, the effect of precarious work on mental health and prolonged exposures to precarious work.