Unemployment Has Some Serious Psychological Implications

February 20th 2015

When, oh when, will we stop stigmatizing mental health issues as things that only happen to the troubled and unstable among us? Because the latest research is in on how unemployment affects a person's mental well-being and guess what? It not only affects it, but it actively changes even those personality traits previously considered "fixed" by psychologists.

Hoo boy.

According to new data published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Applied Psychology, unemployment has been proven to change people's basic personality characteristics, often making folks less conscientious, agreeable, and/or open in their daily lives.

But how does one figure this sort of thing out? you may ask. Well: the researchers examined a sample of 6,769 German adults (3,733 men and 3,036 women) over a period of four years. At two points over the four years they were asked to take a standard personality test to gage their psychological state, studying the "Big Five" personality traits (conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and openness) said to be "fixed" aspects we cannot change. Within this group were 210 folks who were unemployed anywhere from one to four years during the experiment. Another, separate group of them (251 to be exact) were unemployed less than a year but ultimately found jobs.

In their published findings, they found a stark change in the groups' behaviors — and even bigger differences between men and women.

For men, agreeableness actually increased during the first two years of unemployment but fell after that period — tumbling so far that their levels ended up being lower than men who were actively employed. Conscientiousness declined the longer men went without employment, but was also tied to the ability to enjoy one's income (a.k.a. having an expendable portion to spend on non-essentials). Their general openness in the first year of employment remained steady, but decreased the longer they went without a job.

Interestingly enough, women had similar reactions — with the exception of agreeableness, which simply declined steadily — until the last year of the study, where they managed to rebound from their own conscientiousness and openness declines, even if still unemployed. (Perspective really is everything, isn't it?)

So next time you find yourself unemployed for an extended period of time, remember: perspective is everything. Oh and women are pretty emotionally resilient. (Because of course we are.)

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