For Many, Contract Work Can Add Stress

If you’re not in the right frame of mind, a temporary job could stress you out. According to a study conducted by McGill University researchers, employees hired for temporary, contract, fixed-term or "casual" positions are at risk for increased mental health problems.

Contracting Can Cause Stress"Contingent workers report more symptoms of depression and psychological distress than similarly employed workers who are not in these fixed-term positions," says the study’s primary investigator, Assistant Professor Amelie Quesnel-Vallee. She notes the findings apply even to highly educated professionals.

The study was able to rule out other factors that could be responsible for the mental health issues reported by study subjects, like lower wages or fear of unemployment. "What’s left is this issue of the expectation of limited tenure and the insecurity that stems from that, and the perception that these jobs are not an integral part of the team or that you’re not in the mainstream perspective of permanent employment," says Quesnel-Vallee.

The researchers analyzed health and employment records collected over a 10-year period from a survey of U.S. men and women born between 1957 and 1964. They considered the respondents’ temporary work status, depressive symptoms scores, wealth and educational attainment.

Depressive symptoms include things like feeling blue, feeling sad, having difficulty sleeping or lack of appetite. "What we’re finding is that individuals in these temporary positions score one to two points higher on depression scales," Quesnel-Vallee says. "An average person is 3.5 to 4 (out of 21) on this scale. So, one or two symptoms can seem like not much, but on a scale of 3.5 or 4, it’s significant, but far from depression."

What about those who voluntarily opt for contract work because they like the flexibility? Because that wasn’t measured in this study, "we can’t assess whether being in a temporary position and doing that voluntarily is negative for health," Quesnel-Vallee says. "It’s probably not as much."

For job seekers, the bottom line is to be aware of what you’re getting into if you take a temporary position. "A temporary job is probably better than no job, especially when unemployment insurance runs off," Quesnet-Vallee says. "But be mindful that there are various qualities of jobs, and with them come various risks for mental health."

— Dona DeZube

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