Salary and Mental Health: The Psychological Cost of Precariousness

Not being able to make ends meet doesn't only have an economic cost, it has a devastating mental impact. In fact, job insecurity is leaving thousands of victims in its wake.
Salary and Mental Health: The Psychological Cost of Precariousness
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

There are many reasons why a person becomes depressed and, in the worst-case scenario, chooses to commit suicide. However, one of them is well-known, evident, and creeps silently through the foundations of our society. We’re talking about precariousness. This term refers to an existence that’s lacking in predictability, job security, material, and psychological welfare. As a matter of fact, it’s well-known that salary and mental health are directly related. It’s also devastating that so many of today’s psychological disorders originate from these two factors.

Often, when we talk about mental health, the focus is exclusively on the individual. In fact, we tend to place the sole responsibility of taking care of our psychological well-being on our own shoulders. For this reason, we’re often quick to tell someone to “cheer up, things will soon change” or “stop taking things so seriously”. In effect, we forget that the human being is part of a context from which they can’t be separated.

We’re all affected by our relationships, experiences that aren’t under our control, and social situations to which we find it difficult to adapt. Therefore, at times, precarious work can be more dangerous for our mental health than unemployment itself. Indeed, knowing that, no matter how many hours we spend a day working, we won’t make it to the end of the month, raises our anxiety to exorbitant levels.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation, added to the precariousness, is temporality and the constant uncertainty of not knowing whether or not tomorrow you’ll still have a job. In fact, the current global situation – added to many other factors – doesn’t tend to predict the prosperous future you were promised as a child.

“Freedom without opportunity is a devil’s gift, and the refusal to provide such opportunities is criminal.”

-Noam Chomsky-

Sad and apathetic woman due to the impact of salary and mental health

Between 1990 and 2015, Emory University (United States) conducted a revealing study regarding the link between salary and mental health. In this work, they discovered that, throughout those 25 years, each time a new increase in the minimum wage was established, the suicide rate fell between 3.4 percent and 5.9 percent.

This data was especially significant among the younger sector of the population. Indeed, this is another outstanding piece of evidence. The fact that it’s the youngest who suffer the impact of unemployment and, more particularly, precarious employment. In fact, the lack of perspective, as well as seeing that every effort they make receives no reward, means they lose hope long before their situation ever changes. Consequently, they end up in a dead-end tunnel.

The hamster wheel: exhaustion without meaning or end

There are many who see themselves as a small hamster running on a wheel without the chance of anything changing. Low wages don’t allow them to make ends meet or for them to meet even their most basic of needs. However, these kinds of jobs require maximum effort which goes largely unrecognized. Consequently, maintaining this kind of lifestyle leads, in many cases, to health problems, both physical and mental. For example:

  • Chronic stress
  • Insomnia problems.
  • Musculoskeletal problems.
  • Changes in eating patterns.
  • Headaches
  • Increased irritability
  • Sedentary lifestyle.
  • Lack of time for leisure and rest.
  • Lack of enjoyment of tasks that were previously meaningful.
  • Reduced socialization.
  • Major problems and arguments in couples and families.
  • Negativity and lack of hope.
  • Greater risk of behavioral addictions (eg. games, online sex) or substances.
  • Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

A recent survey conducted in Spain on the salaried population concerning health and safety and working conditions revealed some interesting data. It found that 74 percent of people whose salary doesn’t cover their basic needs have a very high risk of suffering from mental health problems.

Precariously employed people desperately cling to one temporary job after another in order to make ends meet. They feel trapped on an endless wheel, gripped by frustration, hopelessness, and also, by a clear resentment of the very society that’s failed them.

Salary and mental health, a problem of social justice

We don’t talk enough about the relationship between salary and mental health. As a matter of fact, this problem is taking away the health – and also the lives – of thousands of people every year. The impact of having a low salary prevents them from satisfying their most basic needs. The kinds of needs that Abraham Maslow spoke about and included in his famous pyramid.

They don’t feel secure, they lack resources, and in many cases, they don’t even have a home. Furthermore, their physical and psychological well-being comes and goes according to the seasons. Eventually, their instability becomes chronic, they can’t pay debts or make any medium-long-term plans.

This person is limited to “living from day to day,” often beset by feelings of shame and hopelessness that fuel their helplessness and negativity.

The lack of work and even more, the precariousness, sooner or later promote the idea of uselessness. In addition, a lack of sense of vitality appears. At this point, they reach the edge of an abyss that’s as dangerous as it’s alarming.

man thinking about the impact of salary and mental health

What’s the solution?

There can be no health (neither physical nor mental) without decent wages. Wages matter. Furthermore, money offers well-being and guarantees a better quality of life for the population. However, it isn’t only more job opportunities that are needed, but also adequate remuneration. The kind that’s sufficient for covering such basic needs as having a home.

In the event that this conjunctural situation prevails, there’ll undoubtedly be an increase in psychological problems among the youngest people. Furthermore, they’ll lack any perspective for the future and their self-realization. These are people who, at some time another, will simply assume that society has completely forgotten about them. They could be right.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Theodossiou I. The effects of low-pay and unemployment on psychological well-being: a logistic regression approach. J Health Econ. 1998 Jan;17(1):85-104. doi: 10.1016/s0167-6296(97)00018-0. PMID: 10176317.
  • Kaufman JASalas-Hernández LKKomro KA, et al Effects of increased minimum wages by unemployment rate on suicide in the USA
  • Kronenberg, Christoph & Jacobs, Rowena & Zucchelli, Eugenio. (2015). The impact of a wage increase on mental health: Evidence from the UK minimum wage.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.