Research: The Link Between Recessions and Physical Pain

Research: The Link Between Recessions and Physical Pain

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It’s well-known that our mental and physical experiences are often closely related. But in this piece, the author shares research that explores this connection on a macro scale. She and her coauthor analyzed data from 1.3 million people across 146 countries over 10 years to examine the connection between national unemployment rates and reported pain levels, and found that a 3% increase in a population’s unemployment rate was on average linked to a 1% increase in the number of people reporting physical pain. The analysis further found that this was largely driven by women: When unemployment increased, pain levels increased mostly among women rather than men. Based on these results, the author suggests that especially during economic downturns, employers should take steps to boost employees’ financial security, sense of agency and control, and other factors that can lead to mental and thus physical anguish.

Studies have shown that around 30% of adults suffer from acute, intermittent, or chronic physical pain. And while this may seem like a purely physical issue, research suggests that psychological factors such as trauma, anxiety, and stress can create sensations of pain as real as those caused by physical injury or illness.

Prior research has largely explored this phenomenon on an individual level, documenting how people’s mental and emotional health can impact their physical wellbeing. In my recent research, however, I worked with my coauthor, Andrew Oswald, to explore how the state of the economy can influence pain levels on a national scale. We analyzed data from 1.3 million people across 146 countries over 10 years and found that the worse the economy was performing in a given time and place (as measured by unemployment rates), the more people reported physical pain. Across our global sample, a 3% increase in a population’s unemployment rate was on average linked to a 1% increase in the number of people reporting physical pain.

Interestingly, we found that individuals’ employment status did not matter as much as the overall unemployment rate: In economically challenging times, people reported more pain regardless of whether they were employed or unemployed themselves. We also identified a substantial gender disparity: The increase in pain levels during economic recessions was almost entirely experienced by women, rather than by men.

What could be driving these effects? Studies have shown that stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues can lead to painful bodily sensations. The greater financial and job insecurity, uncertainty, and lack of control over their lives that people experience during an economic recession likely spur mental anguish, which can in turn cause physical pain. This is further supported by research suggesting that psychological and physical pain activate similar neural pathways in the brain, meaning that negative emotions can sometimes spark negative physical sensations.

As far as the gender difference we identified, there are of course many factors at play. The fact that women are more likely to be in charge of household tasks, including financial decisions, could help explain why women might be in more pain than men during a time in which financial planning is a lot more stressful. Research also indicates that during recessions, women tend to experience both higher demands and less authority at work, likely contributing to their increased stress and pain levels. Studies have also shown that unemployment is often correlated with an increase in domestic violence, which could further lead to disproportionate experiences of pain among women.

To be sure, there are countless reasons why people might experience physical pain — and many of them can be quite challenging to identify, let alone eliminate. Our research, however, sheds light on an often-overlooked factor that could both significantly contribute to physical pain on a society-wide level, and potentially be addressed through targeted interventions.

Specifically, restoring people’s sense of control during hard economic times can help to ease their physical pain. To that end, especially during recessions, employers should take steps to boost employees’ financial security. This can mean making a no-layoffs pledge, emphasizing employees’ agency over their own jobs and career paths, or offering emergency loan programs to help them manage unexpected expenses. Employers can also contribute to employees’ sense of financial security and control by clearly communicating risks and contingency plans, reducing opportunities for unpleasant surprises.

In addition, research has shown that for hourly workers, schedule uncertainty can be a major source of stress. Between the financial uncertainty associated with not knowing how many hours you’ll be able to work and the inability to control and plan your day-to-day life, inconsistent and unpredictable schedules can contribute substantially to both mental and physical pain. To address this, employers should find ways to give workers agency in determining their own schedules, or at the very least, should give them as much advance notice as possible when assigning shifts. This can help people better coordinate their schedules with other household members, increase their sense of control, and reduce stress.

There are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions to the diverse challenges that can cause people pain. Developing a greater awareness of how the economy can impact individual experiences, however, is a critical first step. It’s also important to note that this isn’t just about discomfort — physical pain can also have major financial implications for employers, potentially leading to higher absenteeism rates, more sick days, and faster turnover. In fact, there is reason to think that physical pain may be a driver of the U.S. labor force’s decline since 2007, as one study found that nearly half of the men who are out of the labor force take some form of pain medication.

Of course, pain can often have roots in a physical problem. But it’s important to acknowledge that social and psychological factors may also play a role — and to address those factors with the same urgency that we bring to treating physical ailments. Our research adds yet another reason for scientists, business leaders, and policymakers to dig deeper into the root causes of physical pain, and find ways to improve individual, organizational, and societal wellbeing.

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