The Cleveland job market has not been kind to Karen Gaebelein, 56, and her health has suffered because of it.
"I lost my first job because the position was eliminated" in August 2008, said Gaebelein, from Broadview Heights, Ohio, who worked as a manager at two credit union offices.
"I've always been an emotional person but I noticed myself getting sadder," she said.
Gaebelein was diagnosed with depression. Her diagnosis is only one of the many health problems that can arise after losing a job, according to new research.
"Jobs are so fundamental to who you are and where you fall into society," said Kate Strully, an assistant professor in sociology at the State University of New York at Albany and the author of a new study. "In looking at what happens to people after they lose such a big component of their class position and social identity ... [the study asked] did they lose their job because they were sick or did they get sick because they lost their job?"
In the study, published today in the journal Demography, Strully examined employment data from 1991, 2001, and 2003 and found that losing a job is linked to a higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, diabetes or depression, even when the person finds a new job. Losing a job through no fault of one's own, if a company shut down, for example, led to a 54 percent increase in that person reporting poor health.
Job loss increased the odds of a person developing a new stress-related health problem by 83 percent, even in people who reported being in good health prior to losing their job, the study showed.
"Prior health cannot predict if someone loses their job because of establishment closures," Strully said. "When we really focus on cases where health is not an issue ... we're confident that the health changes following job loss reflects the effect of job loss."
Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, said Strully's findings are in keeping with what is generally known about how stress affects health, particularly in times of economic turmoil.
"Uncertainty, uncontrollability and unpredictability are all potent triggers of stress response," Sternberg said. "The financial storm is a perfect storm of triggers."
But stress is a protective evolutionary trait. Sternberg pointed out that the stress response is necessary to avoid danger.
"A field mouse in a new field who is not stressed and goes to sleep will get eaten by the next cat that comes along," Sternberg said.
Health problems occur when stress pumps hormones and chemicals into the body over long periods of time.
"Every time stressors occur, these systems activate," said Dr. Charles Raison, director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "[The chemicals] extract a little price from the tissues in the body, in the brain."
Over long periods of time, stress causes wear and tear in the body's tissues which, depending on the person, can lead to heart disease, mood disorders or chronic pain.
Still, Strully's data is based on situations from the 1990s and early 2000s, when the economic climate was not as universally challenging as it is now. People who lost their jobs may have been in a better position to find alternate employment or receive financial help via credit, mortgages or family and friends.
"We were looking at a situation where the economy was better than now and there were still sizable health hazards associated with job loss," Strully said. "Common sense suggests that the situation today for displaced workers is probably worse."
Strully attempted to correct for the potential lack of access to health care and medication following job loss caused by decreased income and no health benefits by choosing subjects that reported good health, but acknowledged that those issues could have played a role in how people reported their health following job loss.
But even when the study subjects were covered by insurance, their health problems changed.
"Just having health insurance did not negate the negative effects of job loss," Strully said.
Though it is difficult, Gaebelein manages to have enough money to pay for her antidepressants. In addition, she takes medication for high blood pressure and a hyperthyroid condition.
"I'm living kind of on a shoestring. ... It's tough sometimes for me to get the money to get it together," Gaebelein said. "There's been times where I've had to wait a few days to get [medication]. But I always get it."
Gaebelein said her doctor sometimes saves drug samples for her because she is aware of her financial condition. Such support is one of the most important factors in recovering from losing one's job and staying motivated to continue looking for new employment.
"In this current climate, everybody is taking one or several steps down," Sternberg said. "To the extent that you can, reach out to others and get that support you need."