Research Case Study

Insight: Combating myths about unemployment and weight

Do we need to look again at the risk of being medically underweight if you are out of work?

  • Tagged under

    Economy, business, politics and society
    Global perspectives and challenges

  • Lead Academics

    Dr Amanda Hughes
    Professor Meena Kumari

The unemployed have a much higher risk of being medically underweight compared to people in work and until now we may have been underestimating the problem.

This is one of the key findings of research by Dr Amanda Hughes and Professor Meena Kumari at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex - funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Their research challenges the misconception of the unemployed being more likely to be overweight and identifies the populations most at risk. It suggests the interplay between unemployment and health might have been misunderstood.

Their analysis suggests unemployment can lead to unhealthy weight loss for some people and unhealthy weight gain for others.

This could lead to systematic underestimating of the risk of being underweight and mask a key link between unemployment and increased mortality.

Dr Hughes said: “There are real health risks in being underweight or obese, and this may help explain the high rates of chronic disease and mortality among jobseekers. The results were surprising because it is often assumed that long-term unemployed people are heavier than people in work, for example because it is harder to eat healthily on a very restricted income. Our results suggest that, while there is more obesity among non-smoking jobseekers, unemployed people are also at substantially increased risk of being medically underweight.”

Others groups identified as at the highest risk include longer term jobseekers, unemployed men and people who are out of work from lower-income households.

The research was made possible by Understanding Society, the UK’s largest household panel study. This allowed the researchers to follow the health and work circumstances of over 10,000 work-age adults who had been interviewed annually between 2009 and 2013.

The research compared Body Mass Index (BMI) at the end of the study period between people who were currently unemployed, people who had recently been unemployed, and people who had not recently been unemployed.

Dr Hughes said: “This research will be important to policy makers because for both obesity and underweight we identify particular groups – non-smokers for obesity, men and those from poorer backgrounds for underweight – for whom the risk is especially stark.”

There is an established link between long term unemployment and an increased risk of chronic illness or dying, but the research suggests being underweight could play a previously overlooked role.

Key findings

  • Jobseekers were more likely to be underweight than the never-unemployed
  • Jobseekers were less likely to be overweight than the never-unemployed
  • Non-smoking jobseekers were more, but smoking jobseekers less likely to be obese
  • Longer-term jobseekers, unemployed men, and the unemployed from less affluent backgrounds were most at risk of being underweight.