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When Offering Someone a Job Hurts More than it Helps

New Vanderbilt University research finds that unsolicited job leads can increase symptoms of depression in some people.

by Liz Entman-Vanderbilt University News Office
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Lijun Song.Vanderbilt UniversityIn the paper, Does Receiving Unsolicited Support Help or Hurt? Receipt of Unsolicited Job Leads and DepressionLijun Song, assistant professor of sociology and medicine, health and society, and Wenhong Chen of the University of Texas at Austin, used nationally representative data from 2004-05 to examine the effect of unsolicited job leads—information about job opportunities and openings—on depressive symptoms in working-age American adults.

Not surprisingly, unsolicited job leads tended to relieve depression symptoms in people who were not employed full time or were unhappy with their financial situation. But the researchers were surprised to see that similar offers increased feelings of depression in people who had full-time jobs or were satisfied with their financial situation.

The strength of the effect depended on how long a person had been in their current situation: Unsolicited job leads were the most beneficial to people who lacked full-time jobs for five or more years and needed them most, and the most distressing to those who were employed full time and needed them least.

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Although the researchers did not study the mechanisms explaining why they observed the opposite effect in people who were employed full time or happy with their financial situation, they speculated that several reasons could apply. The offer could be perceived by the recipient as meddling, for example, or make the recipient feel indebted, inadequate or less capable than the person providing the lead or people who already have that kind of job. “This kind of negative social comparison is not good for mental health,” Song said. And, she added, simply applying for the job can add to a person’s stress.

This study answered another question, too: Previous studies examining the effect of social support on health have resulted in inconsistent findings. Song and Chen wanted to investigate whether the circumstances of the support recipient could explain why some benefited from social support while others didn’t. By examining the employment and financial status of the respondents as well as their reactions to the unsolicited job lead, Song and Chen were able to show that in this particular scenario, the circumstances of the recipient did explain discrepancies in the findings.

In the paper, Song and Chen cautioned that their observations wouldn’t necessarily apply to all kinds of social support: Unsolicited offers of food or advice about medical care may be received quite differently because they are related to survival. They also noted that unsolicited offers of purely emotional support—like calling a friend out of the blue to say “I love you”—may be received more positively.

A final caveat: Song examined data from 2004, predating the financial crisis. The results might look a little different today. Moving forward, Song wants to examine the reasons behind the depressive effect she observed more systematically.