How does precarious employment affect mental health? Findings of a thematic synthesis of qualitative evidence.

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


This paper presented the findings of a scoping review and synthesis of qualitative research on the relationship between precarious employment and mental health. Quantitative research on this topic is
plentiful but presents inconsistent results, indicating a mediating effect of sociodemographic and contextual factors. Synthesis of qualitative evidence offers a deeper understanding of the situated experience
of precarious work, and the complex and contingent relationships between employment status, mental health and broader social wellbeing. The review was conducted according to JBI guidance for scoping
reviews (Peters et al., 2020). Search parameters were primary qualitative studies conducted within western economies from 1980 to present day, published in English. The conceptualisation of precarious
employment centred on insecure forms of work, namely temporary agency, fixed-term, casual, zero-hours and gig work. Mental health was conceptualised broadly, to include clinically specified conditions,
stress and subjective psychosocial wellbeing. Searches were conducted 24-25 November 2020 in the databases Proquest, OVID and Web of Science. Database searches returned 3,798 results. An iterative
screening process reduced this to a core set of 34 items, reporting 31 unique studies. A thematic synthesis of findings revealed four main themes: financial instability, temporal uncertainty, marginal status and
employment insecurity. Financial instability was prominent; beyond overall income level, stress and anxiety resulted from complex budgeting decisions of managing uncertain income schedules, both in the
short and longer term. However, other aspects of precarious employment affected mental health, notably temporal uncertainty and the significant socio-relational consequences that followed. Studies also
revealed common experiences of marginalisation among precarious employees, with workers feeling undervalued, socially excluded and exploited within the workplace. Fragmented and transient employment
experiences also impeded career progression, skill development and the experience of positive work identity and job satisfaction. Qualitative research also illuminated the behavioural responses to insecurity
that compound stress and distress. Overwork, presenteeism, tolerance of poor conditions, coupled with the constant search for work, led to physical and emotional exhaustion, familial tensions and conflict.
Overall, extant qualitative research illuminates how insecure employment entails multiple and interrelated consequences at the economic, socio-relational, behavioural and physical levels, all of which
contribute to negative mental health impacts. The review makes both theoretical and practical contributions, offering an advancement on existing conceptual models of the relationship between precarious
employment and mental health, and an accessible starting point to consider potential points of intervention for social policy, as will be discussed during the presentation. Findings indicate that solutions lie
primarily within social security policy, employer practices and workplace relations, rather than mental health policy or psychological treatment services. The pathway from precarious employment to mental
distress has clear social and economic roots, and it is there – rather than in mental health services – that primary efforts must be focused.
Period25 Aug 2021
Event title BSA Work, Employment and Society 2021: Connectedness, Activism and Dignity at work in a Precarious Era
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational