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Sweden – Fixed-term contracts increase the risk of mental illness

18 September 2013

According to research, a higher proportion of employees on fixed term contracts experience psychological problems and believe their health to be worse than permanent employees. The research was carried out by a Swedish PhD student, Anna-Karin Waenerlund, who examined the effects of agency work on mental health for her thesis.

The length of time a person has worked in a fixed-term capacity and the levels of uncertainty in their contract are associated with increased anxiety, nervousness, and stress. This applies to both men and women, according to the research.

Anna-Karin explains in her thesis that the risk of involuntary redundancy and a lack of a financial cushion against future financial difficulties are two possible explanations for why temporary employees experience more mental health problems.

Anna-Karin based her results on survey data from 2007. Approximately 1,000 people from Luleå, Sweden were selected for the survey in 1981. The participants were aged 16 in 1981 and were periodically contacted by the research team. Anna-Karin also used interview data from 2012 involving a small proportion of the original survey group.

The interviews Anna-Karin used in her thesis underlined how fixed-term contracts may be related to mental illness. These workers face numerous barriers in the workplace relating to their employment situation. They felt that it can be difficult to express criticism of the organisation they work for, because it could mean that their contract is not renewed.

Fixed -term contracts may also lead to uncertainty about the economy, which was described by the participants as an inner gnawing stress and a source of concern, which can result in sleep problems. According to Anna-Karin’s research, the situation in which fixed-term contract workers find themselves can be perceived as unfair, and lead to anger and anxiety.   

Anna-Karin said: “While many of these employees are working hard and long hours, they have still not [got the] peace of mind of knowing what their pay check will be next month.”

Agency work has been highlighted as a youth problem and it has been pointed out in the on-going debates that it is a way to get a foothold in the labour market. In her dissertation, Anna-Karin researched adults in their 40s.

“Some can get a foot in the door but are still unable to get fully into the labour market. I call them ‘long-term temporaries’. Some of them have worked for up to ten years with the same employer without having received a permanent appointment. It shows that there are structural problems with the fixed-term contracts used by employers,” Anna-Karin added.

Anna-Karin believes that society should adopt a public health perspective in terms of how to respond to this matter and the circumstances in which fixed-term employment should be allowed to exist. 

Anna-Karin is a PhD student at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine she will defend her dissertation on 4 October 2013.

In direct contrast to Anna-Karin’s research, there has been increasing evidence in other countries of permanent employees choosing to work in a temporary capacity. The most significant reason for this change is unhappiness at work. 

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