Losing a job is about more than a loss of income, because work is about more than money, writes Cardus researcher Johanna Wolfert. Governments must keep the non-monetary aspects of work in mind as they try to support those rendered jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has ravaged Canada’s labour market. Staggering unemployment numbers and the number of applicants for federal aid to get cash into laid-off workers’ pockets dominate headlines. While the unprecedented effort to make up for lost wages has been admirable and sorely needed, losing a job—a reality now facing millions of Canadians—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. Government needs to keep the non-monetary aspects of work in mind as they try to support those rendered jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the unemployment studies we review in our report on the non-financial aspects of work examine populations experiencing forced mass layoffs, often in the form of plant closures—situations closely resembling the present 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 impacts 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 behaviors 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 world’s ballooning unemployed population is likely to compound the strain on hospitals already threatened by an overwhelming influx of coronavirus patients.
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 COVID-19 forces us to face.
Regardless of how we feel about our jobs, work (or the lack of it) is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Up until a month ago, many of us were spending more of our waking hours at the office or jobsite 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 cannot 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, like baking bread, gardening, making face masks, or turning breweries into sanitizer factories—more evidence that work has more than a monetary appeal.
As government continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, it needs to be thinking about the non-financial consequences of being out of work. Behind every Emergency Response Benefit application is a human being—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.