Poor Working Conditions Affect Long-Term Health

Job characteristics are more detrimental to the health of females and older workers than to men or younger workers.

There is a cumulative negative effect of performing a physically demanding or environmentally hazardous job on worker health, but the effects vary substantially across age, race, and education groups. Individuals who work in jobs with the “worst” conditions experience declines in their health. Job characteristics are more detrimental to the health of females and older workers than to men or younger workers, and the adverse health effects increase with the length of exposure to job conditions, according to co-authors Jason Fletcher, Jody Sindelar, and Shintaro Yamaguchi in Cumulative Effects of Job Characteristics on Health (NBER Working Paper No. 15121).

Among both men and women, non-white workers have worse job conditions, lower incomes, and work fewer hours than white workers. Men with more than a high school diploma work in jobs with substantially better working conditions, while women without high school diplomas experience fewer physical demands but harsher environmental conditions than their better-educated counterparts. Older workers in general encounter less strenuous physical demands and less harsh environmental conditions than younger workers.

This research suggests that white working males generally report better health than other groups of workers, although their self-reported health status decreases with age. For non-white and older males, physical demands on the job are associated with poorer health. For non-white men, a single standard deviation increase in a job’s cumulative physical demands over a five year period will have an impact similar to two fewer years of schooling or four more years of aging. For women, a single standard deviation increase in a job’s physical demands over a five year period is similar in impact to a reduction in schooling of one half year, or aging by three years.

When the researchers disaggregate their sample by race, they find that that the adverse effect of environmental conditions is particularly evident for non-white women. For white women, in contrast, physical demands have a more negative effect on health than changes in environmental conditions. For women, unlike men, cumulative weekly work hours are negatively associated with health.

The sample used here takes job characteristics from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and merges them with data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The authors control for childhood and lagged health measures and a set of pre-determined characteristics in order to address concerns that the jobs individuals choose may in part reflect their underlying health characteristics.

-- Sarah H. Wright

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