Zero-hours contracts affect young employees mental health, study finds

Young people employed on zero-hours contracts are more likely to have worse mental and physical health than peers with more stable positions, a study has found.

The major study of millennials, conducted by the UCL Institute of Education, found 25-year-olds employed on the controversial contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of work hours were 41 per cent less likely to report having good physical health compared with those with stable jobs.

Researchers from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education analysed data on more than 7,700 people living in England who were born in 1989-90.

The research, part of wider work looking at young people’s experiences of the labour market, has prompted concern among unions and MPs, who are calling for the government to crack down on exploitative employment arrangements.

The number of people on zero-hours contracts in the UK has risen sharply in recent years to over 900,000 workers nationally.

 Craig Thorley, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

“More people than ever are working on zero hours contracts in the UK, and this new data shows this to be contributing to poorer mental health among younger workers,” said

 “Efforts to improve the UK’s mental health must recognise the important relationship between health and work. Government and employers must work together to promote better quality jobs which enhance, rather than damage, mental health and wellbeing.

“Without this, we risk seeing increased demand for mental health services, reduced productivity, and more young people moving on to out-of-work sickness benefits.”

People on zero hours contracts are more likely to be young, part-time, women, or in full-time education and work on average for 25 hours a week, according to latest data from the ONS.

The highest proportion worked in education, followed by the hospitality sector and then administration and support roles.

Dr Morag Henderson, the lead author of the study, said worries over financial uncertainty could be among the causes of poor mental health for those in the positions:

“Millennials have faced a number of challenges as they entered the world of work. They joined the labour market at the height of the most recent financial crisis and faced higher than ever university fees and student loan debt.

“There is evidence that those with a precarious relationship to the labour market, such as shift workers, zero hours contract holders and the unemployed are more at risk of poor mental health and physical health than their peers.

“One explanation for these findings is that financial stress or the stress associated with having a low-status job increases the risk of poor mental health.

“It may also be that the worry of having no work or irregular work triggers physical symptoms of stress – including chest pain, headaches and muscle tension.”

The Institute of Education study followed 7,707 people living in England who were aged between 13 and 14 in 2004. When they reached 25 in 2015 they were asked about their working life and to rate their physical and mental health on a scale from excellent to poor.

Concern about zero-hours contracts prompted Theresa May to hire Matthew Taylor, the former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit, to head a review of workers’ rights. The response is due in the summer. 

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