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The health toll of bad economic times

Chris Farrell Oct 13, 2011

The Great Recession and continuing high unemployment during the Anemic Recovery is taking its toll on our mental and physical health. A handful of recent stories emphasize how optimism is in short supply and its effect on our minds and bodies.

Case in point #1: The Pew Research Center documents a sharp decline in fertility rates linked to the downbeat economy.

The year 2007 marked a record high number of births in the U.S.–4,316,233. Since that time, births have been declining, even as the U.S. population continues to grow. Preliminary data for 2009 indicate that the number of births dropped to 4,131,018–the lowest number since 2004. Provisional data show that in 2010 births numbered just over 4 million (4,007,000).

Case in point #2: Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger wonders if your job is making you sick? She cites a survey of 279 scholarly studies published last month in the Journal of Applied Psychology which reinforces the insight that workers who believe that their employer is unfair in pay, promotions, and commitments are upset and unhappy.

Among the mental health problems reported: anger, hostility and cynicism, depression and anxiety; among the physical ailments: high cholesterol or heart attacks, as well as higher body-mass index levels or hypertension.

My guess is that worker unhappiness is at high levels. Yes, employees are glad they have a job. Yet her column suggest that unhappiness may be the new employee norm considering how many companies have had to cut back on promised pay and promotions, let alone the sense many workers seem to share that they’re trapped in their job.

Case in point #3: However downbeat the employed may feel it’s nothing compared to the unemployed. Economists Gregory Colman of Pace University and Dhaval Dave of Bentley University find that recreational exercise tends to increase among the unemployed, a result that matches many other studies. Problem is, the increase in exercise and other activities doesn’t compensate for the decrease in work-related exertion after losing a job. In **Exercise, Physical Activity and Exertion over the Business Cycle **they show how “total physical exertion” declines, especially among low-educated males.

This is especially disturbing considering that the low-educated workers are concentrated in the bust industries, such as manufacturing, mining and construction.

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