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Open Access Research article

The interplay between structure and agency in shaping the mental health consequences of job loss

Julia Anaf1*, Frances Baum2, Lareen Newman3, Anna Ziersch4 and Gwyneth Jolley5

Author Affiliations

1 Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity, Flinders University, Room 248 Health Sciences Building, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA, 5001, Australia

2 Southgate Institute for Health, Society & Equity & SACHRU, Flinders University, Health Sciences Building Room 2.05, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA, 5001, Australia

3 Southgate Institute for Health Society & Equity, Flinders University, Room 2.55, Health Sciences Building, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA, 5001, Australia

4 Southgate Institute for Health, Society & Equity, Flinders University, Room 253, Health Sciences Building, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA, 5001, Australia

5 South Australian Community Health Research Unit, Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA, 5001, Australia

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:110  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-110

Published: 6 February 2013

Abstract

Background

Job loss is a discrete life event, with multiple adverse consequences for physical and mental health and implications for agency. Our research explores the consequences of job loss for retrenched workers’ mental health by examining the interplay between their agency and the structures shaping their job loss experiences.

Methods

We conducted two waves of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with a sample of 33 of the more than 1000 workers who lost their jobs at Mitsubishi Motors in South Australia during 2004 and 2005 as a result of industry restructuring. Interviews capturing the mental health consequences of job loss were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis was employed to determine the health consequences of the job loss and the impact of structural factors.

Results

Main themes that emerged from the qualitative exploration of the psychological distress of job loss included stress, changes to perceived control, loss of self-esteem, shame and loss of status, experiencing a grieving process, and financial strain. Drawing on two models of agency we identified the different ways workers employed their agency, and how their agency was enabled, but mainly constrained, when dealing with job loss consequences.

Conclusions

Respondents’ accounts support the literature on the moderating effects of economic resources such as redundancy packages. The results suggest the need for policies to put more focus on social, emotional and financial investment to mediate the structural constraints of job loss. Our study also suggests that human agency must be understood within an individual’s whole of life circumstances, including structural and material constraints, and the personal or interior factors that shape these circumstances.

Keywords:
Job loss; Unemployment; Mental health; Agency; Structure; Mitsubishi; Redundancy; Automotive; Manufacturing