Workplace Culture

Mental Health Issues Affecting Large Number of Temporary Workers

By Staff Report

Aug. 14, 2009

In this economy many HR executives have worried about the mental health of their full-time employees, but they should actually be more concerned about their temporary workers, according to research published by McGill University.

Workers hired for temporary or contract work face a higher risk of developing mental health problems such as depression, according to the research authored by Amelie Quesnel-Vallee, a medical sociologist at Montreal-based McGill.

Today there’s a belief among many employers that having a workforce that is flexible—filled with many temporary and contract workers—leads to greater productivity, says Quesnel-Vallee.

“But if we factor in this increased risk for mental health problems, which we know is a leading reason for absenteeism, that theory might not be correct,” she says.

The study, based on records collected biennially between 1992 and 2002 from the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, focuses on workers who don’t expect to be with their current jobs for more than one year. It was presented for the first time Sunday, August 9, in San Francisco at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

Employers need to be mindful of the fact that obviously they have economic imperatives and there is temptation to go with a more flexible workforce, but the bottom line is that it may not be as obvious as they might predict,” Quesnel-Vallee says.

As of 2005, about 4 percent of the U.S. workforce—or 5.7 million American workers—held temporary positions, according to the most recent data available from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of about 50,000 households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are currently 1.8 million workers employed by temporary agencies, according to the BLS.

It would make sense that the paper’s findings are more acute today given the economic environment, says Janice Dragotta, senior consultant, health and productivity, in the San Francisco office of Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Other than the instability of their jobs, another contributing factor to temporary workers’ inclination to mental health issues could be that they often lack social ties to the rest of the workforce, she says.

“They may not have the opportunity to develop relationships with others or have a sense of work-family that others do in their work lives,” she says.

Also, many times temporary workers don’t have access to health care benefits, so if they are suffering from depression or other issues, they can’t see a doctor without paying out of pocket, she says.

“If they are beginning to feel some anxiety or depression, they may have less access to potential health care,” Dragotta says.

—Jessica Marquez

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