Workers on temporary or part-time contracts don't just have budget shortfalls to worry about. New Canadian research suggests that workers who do not have job security will develop more physical and mental health problems compared to their full-time counterparts.

Research conducted by Dr. Charles Muntaner from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto found that job insecurity can lead to anxiety and depression, which can then cause cardiovascular and other physical ailments.

The findings are included in a World Health Organization study called Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health.

The research states that:

  • Mortality is higher among temporary workers compared to permanent workers.
  • Workers with precarious employment status are three to four times more likely to develop some form of mental illness.
  • Workers who have high-demand but low-control jobs that offer few rewards are at greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse problems.
  • Lower-status, non-permanent jobs expose employees to hazardous work conditions more often than permanent jobs of higher status.
  • Work-related stress is linked with a 50 per cent increased risk of heart disease.

"On average, these types of employment conditions give a lot of flexibility to the employer but create a huge amount of insecurity, psychological anxiety and symptoms of depression among the workers because they don't know when they are going to lose their job or when they're going to find another one," Muntaner, the psychiatric and addictions nursing research chair at CAMH, told

The anxiety and depression that temporary workers may develop can then lead to a variety of physical ailments, such as heart problems and compromised immune systems, Muntaner said.

Companies trying to compete in a growing global marketplace are reducing labour and manufacturing costs, the WHO report says. This means that employers are more likely to offer new workers part-time or contract work that does not include benefits.

As well, many employees in low- or middle-income countries earn a living in an "informal economy, which by its nature is precarious and characterized by a lack of statutory regulation to protect working conditions, wages, occupational health and safety and injury insurance."

The problems are more common in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, where there is greater tolerance for employment inequities, Muntaner said.

In the last 12 months, part-time employment in Canada has grown by 3.5 per cent compared to a 0.9 per cent growth in full-time work.

Across the European Union, 19 per cent of workers are part time while 15 per cent are temporary.

Countries such as Canada can follow the example set in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, which have heavily regulated labour markets, Muntaner said.

These countries offer generous unemployment benefits and invest heavily in infrastructure and job training, which means they have a highly trained workforce. As well, this support lowers employees' risks of developing illness.

Unlike other countries that allow businesses to cut their investment in their workers, such as the United States, these policies have kept Denmark and other nations competitive in international markets, Muntaner said.

The WHO established the Commission on Social Determinants of Health in 2005. The Commission's mandate was to investigate how social circumstances, such as where people live and work, as well as the quality of local health-care services, determine health status and life expectancy.

Among other recommendations, the Commission's final report, released Monday, suggests that governments "make full and fair employment and decent work a central goal of national and international social and economic policy-making."

It also says states that:

  • Health equity can only come from safe, secure and fairly paid work, year-round work opportunities and a healthy work-life balance.
  • Workers should be able to engage in quality work with a living wage that takes into account a real cost of living.
  • Agencies should support the implementation of core labour standards for both full- and part-time workers.
  • Employers should improve working conditions to reduce exposure to hazard materials and work-related stress.