Background: The relationship between unemployment and increased risk of morbidity and mortality is well established. However, what is less clear is whether this relationship varies between welfare states with differing levels of social protection for the unemployed.
Methods: The first (2002) and second (2004) waves of the representative cross-sectional European Social Survey (37,499 respondents, aged 25–60). Employment status was main activity in the last 7 days. Health variables were self-reported limiting longstanding illness (LI) and fair/poor general health (PH). Data are for 23 European countries classified into five welfare state regimes (Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Bismarckian, Southern and Eastern).
Results: In all countries, unemployed people reported higher rates of poor health (LI, PH or both) than those in employment. There were also clear differences by welfare state regime: relative inequalities were largest in the Anglo-Saxon, Bismarckian, and Scandinavian regimes. The negative health effect of unemployment was particularly strong for women, especially within the Anglo-Saxon (ORLI=2.73 and ORPH=2.78) and Scandinavian (ORLI=2.28 and ORPH=2.99) welfare state regimes.
Discussion: The negative relationship between unemployment and health is consistent across Europe but varies by welfare state regime, suggesting that levels of social protection may indeed have a moderating influence. The especially strong negative relationship amongst women, may well be because unemployed women are likely to receive lower than average wage replacement rates. Policy makers' attention therefore needs to be paid to income maintenance, and especially the extent to which the welfare state is able to support the needs of an increasingly feminised European workforce.
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