By Kathryn Doyle
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - When employers set a higher minimum wage based on realistic living expenses, employees have better mental health, according to a new study.
Although there are employed people living in poverty all over the world, "the very high cost of living in the city and the fact that minimum wages are set nationally makes the problem particularly acute in London," coauthor Jane Wills of the School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London, said.
The "London Living Wage" campaign, launched in 2001, is a social movement lobbying for higher pay based on high living expenses. Over the past decade, more than 100 employers agreed to abide by the living wage.
The program's effect on mental health has not been studied before, Wills said.
In 2011, the London Living Wage (LLW) was set at 8.30 British pounds per hour, or U.S. $13, compared with a UK national minimum wage of 6.08 pounds per hour, or just over $9.
Researchers interviewed 173 workers for London Living Wage employers and 127 people who worked for other employers. Most of the interviewees worked for cleaning companies, for grounds crews or in transportation.
Ranked on a special scale of mental wellbeing, where the average adult scores a 51, half of the workers with LLW employers scored above average, compared to 34 percent of the other workers.
LLW workers averaged a score of 58, compared to 55 among non-LLW workers. Three LLW workers and four non-LLW workers scored below a 41, which is well below the population average.
The scale of mental wellbeing is not a clinical tool and isn't used to measure how "healthy" or "unhealthy" a person is, according to Noriko Cable, who studies the epidemiology of public mental health at University College London.
But a difference of four points or more below average could theoretically have a significant effect on a person, Cable said.
White British workers tended to have lower wellbeing scores than black Africans or Latin Americans. People who worked more than 30 hours per week also tended to have lower scores than those who worked less than 16 hours, according to the study results in the Journal of Public Health.
According to lead author Ellen Flint, who researches social and environmental health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the wellbeing scale "measures optimism about the future, feeling useful, feeling relaxed, feeling interested in other people, having energy to spare, thinking clearly, feeling good about yourself, feeling close to other people, feeling confident, making your own mind up about things, feeling loved, being interested in new things and feeling cheerful."
There are many ways that a living wage might contribute to better mental wellbeing, according to Mel Bartley, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London.
"Debt is well known to be harmful to mental health," said Bartley, who has worked with the study authors in the past but was not involved in this paper. "Social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking, and people with very little money often withdraw from their social networks out of shame."
Also, people making very little money may have to pick and choose between basic life necessities like heat and food, which can have obvious consequences for health, she said.
"Children of economically stressed parents often struggle at school and suffer long into their adulthood," Bartley said. "There is no net benefit to society as a whole of having groups who are in poverty."
The London Living Wage campaign began as a social movement, but many businesses also support it for economic reasons, she said: if people make more money, they can buy more products.
The U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, equivalent to about 4.5 pounds, which is lower than the UK minimum wage and just over half of the London Living Wage.
"The idea of a living wage is spreading to social movements in other countries," Wills said. "There are active campaigns in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There is growing interest in Europe too."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/GFHNCe Journal of Public Health, September 5, 2013.