Social determinants of work

The Rise and Fall of Underemployment: Implications for Workers' Health

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This brief offers an overview of the literature exploring the connection between underemployment and health outcomes. Public policies can be crucial in mitigating the negative health effects associated with underemployment. However, more comprehensive data on transitions into and out of underemployment are required to inform future research and policy initiatives.

The primary findings include:

  • Underemployment, particularly in the form of involuntary part-time work, spiked to record levels in 2020; by 2023, it had receded to prepandemic levels.
  • Underemployment is disproportionately concentrated among workers who are paid hourly; have precarious work schedules or relatively low family incomes; are members of vulnerable demographic groups; and are employed in certain industries, such as leisure and health services.
  • Working fewer actual hours than desired can affect various aspects of workers’ mental and physical health and well-being, such as increasing psychological distress, depression, and anxiety However, psychological distress appears reversible when a person moves out of underemployment and into full-time or voluntary part-time work.
  • Working part time involuntarily instead of voluntarily is associated with an increase in self-reported negative health impacts and antecedents, such as greater work stress, work-life imbalance, and financial insecurity.
  • Further research using US longitudinal data is needed to establish more definitively the causal effects of being underemployed on workers’ concurrent and longer-term health outcomes.
  • Public policies could moderate the level, intensity, and adverse health effects of underemployment.