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When Having No Job is Better than Working, Who's to Blame?

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When it comes to employment and happiness, there's always been something of an accepted hierarchy. Having a job you love and that pays you well is at the top. Below that: having a job you love OR one that pays well. Then there's simply having a job, any job. At the very bottom of the scale: not having a job (assuming, of course, that you want to work).

The bottom end of that hierarchy has been called into question of late, however: a recent study by the Australian National University in Canberra suggested that people might enjoy better mental health outcomes by staying unemployed rather than by accepting "poorer" jobs.

Or, as the study's authors put it: "…we found that moving from unemployment to a job with poor psychosocial quality was associated with a significant decline in mental health relative to remaining unemployed."

Just to be clear: we're not strictly talking menial labor or jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder here. Rather, the researchers sorted jobs according to a list of criteria that people at every level of society will be able to identify with:

  • High job demands
  • Low decision latitude or control
  • Job strain
  • A lack of social support at work
  • Effort-reward imbalance
  • Job insecurity

One way of looking at what the study was measuring, then, is the effect of poor management on employees—be they graduates of Hamburger University or an elite MBA program.

While the study drew on labor force data from Australia, and suggests that outcomes may be different in countries with a less generous social security net, it nonetheless underscores an important point for both job seekers and employers: that not having an engaged workforce harms everyone involved. Because when an employee's mental health is suffering because of their job, you can be pretty sure that your company is suffering as a result.

And as the list of factors above makes clear, the onus on improving the employee's health lies with the people who have the power to affect those factors: managers.

Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee. Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com