The Effects of Long Term Unemployment on Depression

depressed due to job loss


Loss of income. Lack of meaning. Loss of social ties. Stigma. On the heels of what some are calling the “great recession,” these symptoms are familiar to the 3.1 million Americans who have dealt with unemployment for at least six months. These are all issues that those who have lost their jobs have to deal with on a daily basis. And it’s no surprise that these are all factors that can contribute to depression or make a bout of depression worse. For years, the research on the psychological impact of unemployment has shown broad negative effects on mental health. However, up until recently, research on the long term effects on personality has been scarce.


A new study from the University of Warwick looked at over 6,700 German workers over a four year period. Prior to the study, these workers were given the “Big Five” inventory. The Big Five traits have been used around the world (across 59 nations and 29 languages) to successfully test where individuals lie on the continuum of five personality factors: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extraversion. Psychologists agree that these five traits are quite stable in adulthood, making them a good test for this study.


During the four-year period studied, data was collected on the employment status of all study members. Although all the study members were initially employed, 451 of the subjects met the criterion of the study and experienced joblessness during the four year period. At the end of the study, the Big Five personality inventory was given again. This allowed researchers to make connections between unemployment spells of varying lengths with changes in personality. And the researchers did find some interesting data. The Big Five traits are understood to be stable personality factors after about age 30, and with those study members who had not changed job status, the factors remained stable. However, when looking at those who had lost their jobs during the study, researchers found that there were notable changes in three of the Big Five factors: Agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness. In most cases, the results of these three factors dropped significantly in the unemployment group, with most results showing the most serious changes the longer the study members were unemployed.


So what accounts for these changes? Can unemployment really change our personalities? Although we know that unemployment, especially long term unemployment correlates with changes in some personality traits, researchers can’t be certain if it is the factor of unemployment that directly causes these changes. More research is needed to answer these and other questions about long term unemployment, but this research is on the right track.


A study by the Gallup group showed that this study has implications for Americans as well. Recently in 2013, Gallup polled Americans regarding unemployment. They polled a group of 356,599 Americans, including 18,322 unemployed adults. Among the unemployed, 12.4% stated that they were depressed or were being treated for depression. This is over double the reported rate of depression for those with full time jobs, who reported depression at 5.6%. When Gallup polled the separate group of those that had been unemployed for more than 52 weeks, reported depression rose to 19%, or one in five people.


There are a number of scenarios we can imagine causing these changes after unemployment. Does unemployment cause depression, or do depressive symptoms cause people to lose jobs and not be able to find work? Research cannot be sure. However, if you’ve ever experienced a period of long-term unemployment, you probably have no difficulty imagining that it can change your personality. Becoming unemployed can be a big trauma in someone’s life. Adding the symptoms of sadness, loneliness and fatigue from spending all day every day looking for work to no avail, we can only imagine that these symptoms can add up to an episode of Major Depression.


I’m Unemployed; What Can I Do?

Loss of a job brings far more emotional effects than we can imagine. So, when fighting with loss of income, social ties and meaning, is there anything you can do to change your fate? Here are some ideas to keep you on the right track for your mental health.


  1. Know the symptoms of depression: Quick diagnosis and treatment can catch depression right away and prevent it from getting worse. Find the symptoms of depression here, and get help right away if you feel you are depressed.
  2. Stay busy: Take this “downtime” to polish up your resume and do some networking. Take up a hobby you’ve been meaning to try. Even volunteering can be an excellent way to stay busy and fight isolation while making you feel good.
  3. Keep healthy: Keep a schedule, including eating right and exercising. These two simple things can keep depression at bay while making you look, and feel, great!
  4. Take another look at your budget: With loss of income it’s time to reevaluate your spending. This will make you feel more in control of your money and your environment.
  5. Be aware of negative thinking: Negative thoughts such as “I’ll never get a job,” or “I’m worthless,” doesn’t help you and it can lead to further negative thoughts and depressive symptoms. Recognize those thoughts and squash them. If you find you can’t do this by yourself, finding a therapist who can help could keep you from a bout of depression.