A type of employment agreement primarily used in Great Britain may have a negative effect on both the mental and physical health of workers, according to a new study.

A zero-hour contract, in which an employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours and the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered, is used to enable on-call scheduling and can be found in agriculture, hotels and catering, education, and healthcare sectors. It provides companies with flexibility in staffing but leaves workers with a relatively high level of uncertainty about the size of their paycheck.

Health effects

Young adults who are employed on zero-hours contracts are less likely to be in good health, and are at higher risk of poor mental health than workers with stable jobs, according to a research published by the Institute of Education at the University College London.

Researchers analysed data on more than 7,700 people living in England who were born in 1989-90 and are being followed by a study called Next Steps.

They found that at age 25, people on zero-hours contracts and those who were unemployed were less likely to report feeling healthy, compared to those in more secure employment.

Less stressful than unemployment

Those with zero-hours contracts were also at greater risk of reporting symptoms of psychological distress. However, young adults who were unemployed were more than twice as likely to suffer from mental ill health compared to those who were in work.

And, although shift workers were at no greater risk than those working regular hours to be in poor health, they were more likely to have psychological problems.

The lead author, Dr Morag Henderson, said:  “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.”

Further reading:

UCL: Initial findings from the Next Steps Age 25 Sweep, July 2017 (pdf - 363.99 Kb)