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During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic the UK imposed restrictions on who could go to work. Its Office for National Statistics recorded that the number of people reporting high levels of anxiety had more than doubled since this lockdown began at the end of March.
Unemployment and mental health difficulties
The negative impacts of unemployment are not just financial. Gaps in an employment record send negative signals to prospective employers, but beyond that, early unemployment can lead to negative expectations of future employability for those affected. It also doubles the risk of a major depressive episode and increases the risk of suicide. Without coping strategies there is a downward spiral as people become more helpless and isolated.
Nor is getting a job necessarily the end of the story. 43 per cent of people in the UK identify as having a mental health problem at some point in their lives, and need support throughout.
Poor mental health and other vulnerabilities predict unemployment
As well as early unemployment creating poor mental health, childhood psychological distress itself increases the risk of unemployment in adulthood. Young people from ethnic minorities too are almost twice as likely to be unemployed, at 23 per cent, even with qualifications similar to those of their white peers. Many different factors may intersect to influence employment and mental health outcomes.
What kind of support could help?
There’s a 50 per cent increase in mental health issues among the unemployed caused by welfare cuts according to the UK Council for Psychotherapy. The risk of benefits sanctions creates anxiety that impairs mental health and the mental capacity to concentrate on job searches. Welfare needs to be predictable and reliable.
At a minimum it should be part of the Jobcentre’s responsibility to inform job seekers of in-person and online support groups, schemes and local projects for the unemployed. The emphasis should be on equipping people with the confidence and self-esteem—along with practical skills—to navigate the job market successfully. Volunteering opportunities may be a good start.
Those with experience of unemployment recommend mitigating its psychological stress by having structured routines, making a plan for each day and exercise. Ideally, support groups of those who are or have been in similar circumstances would add understanding and empathy from an automatic community.
Pre-emptive measures for those most vulnerable
Targeted initiatives could be aimed at those especially vulnerable. These may work best when local community organisations work directly with young people to help figure out where their skills can be best used. Having skills recognised, when you may not have recognised them yourself, and practised in the real-world makes them tangible and breaks the cycle of self-doubt.
The psychological impact of unemployment it is both symptomatic of, and perpetuates, the underlying issue. By not addressing this we are complicit in the suffering of the unemployed and making unemployment a longer-term problem affecting us all.