Insecure Work Series: How and why insecure work negatively impacts mental health

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We know that for some people, casual, temporary or on-demand work can be a good fit for personal circumstances. However, for many people, insecure work is involuntary and is often linked to poor mental wellbeing. At the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health, we have reviewed evidence on how the experience of insecure work impacts people’s mental health. Our review focussed on the first dimension of The Work Foundation’s Insecure Work Index, namely contractual insecurity, or when people are not guaranteed future hours or future work. We asked: how do contractually insecure forms of work – including temporary agency, fixed-term, casual, zero-hours and gig work – affect people’s mental health?

Insecure work and mental health: reviewing the evidence

Previous research has demonstrated a relationship between insecure work and poor mental health. For our study, we looked specifically at qualitative evidence, to try and understand how and why insecure work negatively affects mental health. As historical and social context is important, we focused our review on research conducted in western economies (Europe, North America, Canada and Australia). We used a thematic synthesis approach of 32 relevant qualitative studies published between 2004-2021 to identify four ‘core experiences’ of insecure employment: financial instability, temporal uncertainty, marginal status and employment insecurity.

Financial instability resulted not only from low income but also, as recognised in the Work Foundation’s Index, unpredictable income. Uncertainty about payment schedules made it difficult for people to budget and to prioritise spending decisions.

Temporal insecurity operated at two levels. In the short-term, uncertainty about shifts or working hours made it difficult for people to schedule childcare, to commit to social engagements and to attend to personal needs (e.g. medical appointments). In the longer-term, insecure work constrained people’s ability to make future plans such as leaving the parental home or starting a family. Financial and temporal insecurity both impacted on people’s personal relationships and social lives. People felt unable to commit to plans because they felt they must be constantly available for work. This led to tensions within families and detachment from social networks.

Marginal status was a common experience for people in temporary or agency jobs. People felt excluded from formal and informal networks in the workplace. They could be given the least desirable tasks and inadequate resources to do their job well. Workers might be poorly treated by permanent employees and lacked opportunities to develop professionally. It could be difficult for people on insecure contracts to make friends and feel a part of a workplace, leading to isolation and loneliness.

Employment insecurity referred to the overall experience of uncertainty about continued employment or re-hire. This led people to overperform, work through illness, and tolerate poor conditions through fear of jeopardising their future employment.

Pathways to poor mental health

In combination, these experiences of financial instability, temporal uncertainty, marginal status and employment insecurity had a wide range of detrimental effects on people’s economic wellbeing, social relationships, work-related behaviours (e.g. presenteeism, overwork) and physical health. In turn, these multiple areas of conflict and strain led to negative mental health effects. Participants in the reviewed studies reported experiences of stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression and other emotions such as frustration, guilt and low self-esteem. It was evident that insecure work can deprive people not only of the financial benefits of secure employment but also the social benefits of regular routine, identity, valued social status and positive social interactions.

What might this mean for policy and practice?

Our review underlines the importance of current campaigns to secure ‘living hours’ and more predictable work schedules for people in insecure employment. Greater confidence in the regularity of hours might counteract responses of overwork and presenteeism, and reduce stress and uncertainty around budgeting and caring.

The impact of insecure work on interpersonal relationships, both inside and outside of the workplace, came through strongly in our review. This has implications for workplace inclusion practices, particularly when we consider that marginalised groups are overrepresented among those in insecure work. More equitable and supportive workplace relations may counter feelings of social isolation and tendencies to suppress needs and concerns.

Universal Basic Income is a complex policy option, but could be an important policy tool in improving the mental health of people in insecure employment. There is growing evidence that such an approach may have positive impacts for workers’ sense of wellbeing, by improving social relationships and giving people more opportunity to plan and hope for the future (see also this).

Our review is published in the journal Work, Employment and Society and is free to read and download. We hope that it provides a helpful way into future research and dialogue between academics, policymakers and employers.

Dr Annie Irvine

Research Associate, ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health, King’s College London

Annie Irvine is a qualitative researcher whose interests centre around experiences of and interactions between mental health, employment and welfare systems. Annie seeks primarily to contribute to research that has policy and practice relevance, whilst also exploring conceptual and theoretical aspects of mental health and society. She is currently employed as a Research Associate in the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health, King’s College London.

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