Unemployment and mental health

More than one-third of the UK’s unemployed people have been looking for work for more than a year. In this blog, SET member Maureen O'Callaghan reflects on her work with unemployed people and how mindfulness-based life-skills programmes may help them to bounce back in the face of adversity.

Unemployment affects individuals in more ways than the impact on their wallet. It also brings more stress and worries which can have a negative impact on the body. These negative impacts can be exacerbated by prolonged periods of job loss. Individuals experiencing long-lasting unemployment might become anxious, depressed and irritable. Prolonged unemployment can also have a negative overall effect on a person’s sense of self-worth, causing damage that can remain even after successfully re-entering employment.

There is strong evidence that unemployment is generally harmful to physical and mental health. Particularly, long-term unemployment results in depression, emotional instability, and stress. Additionally, unemployment may affect physical health via a stress pathway involving physiological changes such as hypertension and lowered immunity. These negative impacts are worse when people have spent a long time looking for a job without success. A recent study examined the effects of a mindfulness-based programme on unemployed individuals. The results were very positive. Mindfulness helped them to reduce their stress symptoms and to increase their focus on everyday activities. Participants were also more confident in being able to find a job.

A few years ago I was involved in the delivery of a number of courses designed to develop “employability skills”. Funded by the local authority, these courses focused on interviewing skills, CV writing at IT skills.  People were referred onto the course by the local Job Centre Plus and many of the learners, rightly or wrongly, were under the impression that if they did not attend their benefits would stop. There were a few who were motivated to learn but far the majority just turned up and made it clear they could not wait for the sessions to end.

What soon became clear was that many of these people were suffering from mental health problems and being asked to think about and role play an interview situation only added to their distress. Many exhibited signs of stress i.e. the pressure they experienced impacted upon them physically, cognitively and psychologically. It also negatively impacted upon their behaviour, with some becoming more aggressive whilst others became more withdrawn, even switching off entirely. In addition, the effects of low levels of confidence and self-esteem were compounded by their having to produce a CV when they were struggling to find anything good to say about themselves. I tried to help by adopting a teaching strategy that incorporated activities designed to help learners to build the resilience they needed to cope with the pressures and challenges of being unemployed.

Moving forward a few years and once again I have the opportunity to apply for funding to work with the unemployed but in many cases payment is now dependent upon learners moving back into employment and staying in employment i.e. payment by results. I am conscious that for many small organisations this has meant they have had to “cherry pick” those learners who are most likely to move back into employment leaving others feeling doubly rejected. Very few funders recognise the need to address learners’ mental health needs as part of a strategy for moving people into employment and even fewer acknowledge that in some instances putting pressure on an already vulnerable learner can be damaging to not only their mental health and wellbeing but also their chances of moving into employment. 

What adult and community learning funding is enabling us to develop and deliver is a mindfulness-based life-skills programme that has been designed to help the unemployed develop resilience, improve their mental health and wellbeing, increase levels of focus and concentration, improve their thinking skills leading to better decision making and problem solving and develop communication and interpersonal skills leading to improved relationships.

Learning how to pay more attention to the present moment, to their own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around them, can have a big impact on the ability of the unemployed to bounce back in the face of adversity. When people practice mindfulness, they report higher levels of mental well-being (less stress, depression, and anxiety), better physical well-being (less pain and better immune system function), and richer interpersonal relations (better capacity to express themselves and listen to others). These are all skills that are valued by employer and they are also invaluable in helping people to produce job applications and to perform well at interview. 


ONS. (2015). UK Labour Market, April 2015. Retrieved from http://ons.gov.uk/ons/ dcp171778_399544.pdf

Waddell, G., & Burton, A. K. (2006). Is Work Good for your Health and Well-being? London: The Stationery Office.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156.

McKee-Ryan, F., Song, Z., Wanberg, C. R., & Kinicki, A. J. (2005). Psychological and physical well-being during unemployment: a meta-analytic study. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(1), 53–76.

De Jong, A., Hommes, M., Brouwers, A., & Tomic, W. (2013). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction course on stress, mindfulness, job self-efficacy and motivation among unemployed people. Australian Journal of Career Development, 22(2), 51–62.

Moorhouse, A., & Caltabiano, M. L. (2007). Resilience and Unemployment: Exploring risk and protective influences for the outcome variables of depression and assertive job searching. Journal of Employment Counselling, 44, 115–125.

Brown, K., Ryan, R., & Creswell, J. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211–237.

Maureen O’Callaghan runs a social enterprise providing mindfulness-based interventions, working within health and social care, education, criminal justice and workplace settings. She has a Certificate in Education and a University Diploma in Mentoring in Education. She is in her final year of a MSc in Mindfulness Based Approaches and he thesis is exploring the impact of a mindfulness-based distance learning programme on unpaid caregivers levels of self-care. She is has recently been accepted as a delivery partner in a number of employability programmes where positive mental health is increasingly recognised as a key factor in helping people back into employment.

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