This article explores the mental health consequences of job loss resulting from the downsizing and partial closure in 2004 and 2005 of the South Australian subsidiary of Mitsubishi Motors, a major automotive manufacturing company. Job loss is a discrete life event with multiple adverse consequences for physical and mental health, including depression and impaired psychosocial functioning
. Mental health results from the complex interplay between biological, psychological, social, environmental and economic factors
; while social environments incorporate material, behavioural and psychosocial factors that all strongly influence health
. Reviews of literature
[1, 4] show that individuals experiencing job loss may be the victims of external economic and social forces, and their scope to exercise agency in support of their health is strongly constrained by these structural forces: an interplay that is explored in our research.
Job loss and mental health
Job loss is the termination of a worker’s employment in response to planned closure or company downsizing, and is linked to economic change, company organisation, or increased use of technology
. Under competitive capitalism job losses are now more often unexpected events due to company failure rather than planned restructuring
. A wide literature documents the impact of job insecurity, job loss and unemployment on physical and mental health
. There is a nexus between these three discrete areas of research as many workers experience job insecurity prior to job loss which is a life event that ends in unemployment unless a new job is obtained immediately
Job insecurity is most often conceptually linked with the probability of involuntary job loss due to retrenchment or when jobs become redundant
. It is a chronic health stressor experienced from the stage of threatened unemployment and heightened in industrialised countries since the 1990s due to economic and labour market changes
[10, 11]. Forty per cent of Australian jobs are now non-permanent, with debates on the extent to which these are precarious
. Anticipation of insecurity and major organisational change results in increased self-reported morbidity
 which may begin as soon as workers learn that jobs are in jeopardy
. The threat of redundancy is potentially equal to, if not greater than, the actual event. An Australian study on job insecurity
 showed that certainty of job status, even the certainty of redundancy, may be less psychologically detrimental than prolonged insecurity.
Research on employees’ emotional stages in dealing with downsizing and closure has been linked to stages of grieving which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, exploration and acceptance
[16, 17]. Job loss usually involves a sequence of stressful events or stages, including anticipation through to actual layoff, job search, training, and finally re-employment
 within the context of economic change
. Manufacturing industry workers face longer periods of non-employment than those in primary industries, with workers tending to be, on average, lower skilled, with longer job tenure and from larger firms than other industries; factors compounding difficulties for re-employment
 p. 329.
Job loss affects the interaction between individual behaviours, cognitions and emotions, and the material and social contexts of life, with the resulting psychosocial environment influencing positive self-regard and productivity
[21, 22]. The health impacts of job loss are more difficult to assess within the contemporary labour market where workers in so-called ‘permanent’ jobs still experience insecurity from being increasingly subject to, or aware of, the potential for restructuring and downsizing
. Many workers who lose their jobs now find limited, intermittent and more health damaging forms of work that are ‘contingent’
. These involve short tenure, low wages, poor statutory entitlements, job insecurity and curtailed social benefits
. They are features of an employment continuum that includes unemployment, economically inadequate employment, and economically adequate employment that may still not be optimal in either psychological or economic terms
Psychosocial and other working conditions are generally worse under precarious employment, with different patterns of adverse occupational exposures identified between groups of precariously employed workers
. The most frequent and prominent outcomes of becoming unemployed are symptoms of psychiatric disorder and distress, particularly depression
. This can rob life of pleasure and lead to cognitive, motivational and behavioural consequences and neuro-chemical changes
. Job loss is high on the list of stressful life events
, triggered by external stressors including economic downturns and ‘layoffs’, as well as internal stressors including fear of failure
. Stressful events may influence physical and mental health and may be additive, with the adverse consequences of losing a job resulting in a potential ‘chain of adversity’
 p. 39. This has implications for older workers who are often at greater risk of job loss
[9, 12, 20] and face problems of discrimination, lack of self-esteem and the level of retraining necessary due to redundant skills
Job loss harms health because it represents a serious negative life event with important economic consequences
, including a lower probability of subsequent employment and considerably reduced future wages and earnings. Associated financial stress is often chronic and experienced as uncontrollable, and is defined as ‘the unpleasant feeling that one is unable to meet financial demands, afford the necessities of life and have sufficient funds to make ends meet’
 p. 4. Financial and psychological strain following job loss may undermine the resources needed to cope with other adverse life events
[32, 33]. Strategies for coping with the range of stressors may also be harmful, with suicidal behaviour perhaps the most extreme
Perceived control or ‘the belief that one can determine one’s own internal states and behaviour, influence ones’ environment, and / or bring about desired outcomes’ critical to mental health is influenced by job loss and job insecurity
. Perceived control protects against stress and has positive biological effects
, with a series of cross sectional studies showing the relationship between low perceived control and poor health
[39, 40]. Financial stress leads to decreased levels in reported feelings of control that may in turn lead to increased distress
Employment provides not only secure income and socioeconomic status but socialisation, personal growth, opportunities for engaging in social networks and the ‘experience of self in a core social role’
 p. 99. When people are denied status and respect they are vulnerable to feeling inferior and worthless
. Grief or a grieving process may therefore be another outcome of job loss, as it is part of a range of feelings accompanying loss of status and respect. Grief is defined as ‘a neuropsychobiological response to any kind of significant loss with elements typical and unique to each individual or situation’
 p. 533. Job loss due to industry restructuring arguably involves both elements as it is experienced as a ‘private trouble’ for each individual, as well as a ‘public issue’ as a widely shared experience
. It is important for retrenched workers to mourn the loss of a job, as they may require help to cope with potential multiple losses
. These include the roles of worker and family provider, the ‘work family’, a sense of being productive, social status, pride and dignity, and self-esteem. Associated emotions including shame, anger, guilt and shock may be experienced in response
A review of job loss and unemployment
 includes research supporting a view that reactions to job loss are contingent on the moderating effect of economic resources in the causal chain between job loss and its effects
, and that ‘availability of income may be the most important determinant of the expression of psychological and health symptoms’
 p. 50. Financial strain and its consequences are the ‘critical mediators in the relationship between unemployment and depression’
 p. 303. Financial strain mediates the relationship between unemployment status and depression while subsequent re-employment helps lower the influence of financial strain on depression
The health consequences of job loss are grounded in structures that have implications for retrenched workers’ agency, as discussed in the following section.
An agency and structure approach: two typologies of agency
The term ‘agency’ generally refers to purposive human action or behaviour, decision-making strategies and exercise of choice in pursuing personal aims. It raises issues of motivation and the personal and cultural resources that facilitate a capacity to act
. Agency is mediated by socio-economic structures and the skills, motivations, and both interior and material resources available to each individual. These are influenced by educational opportunities and attainment, family supports, financial resources, employment status, and personal subjectivities including gender, age, race, dis / ability and sexuality.
Theoretical insights from two models of agency devised by Lister
 and Hoggett
 provide nuanced agency perspectives for understanding responses to job loss. Lister’s typology situates constraints to agency and participation within the context of existing social relations; highlighting the different actions individuals employ to overcome poverty or disadvantage. At the individual level these include (just) ‘getting by’, and more strategic ‘getting out’ (of) responses. At the collective or political level these are everyday ‘getting back’ (at) responses by individuals against ‘the system’, while ‘getting organised’ involves more strategic engagement at the community or political level to improve the well-being of the wider community.
Hoggett’s agency typology identifies that constraints to agency are also rooted in people’s unique interior selves and their fluctuating levels of reflexivity. It acknowledges the reality that individuals sometimes lack insight into things they may say or do in response to a range of emotional or life events [such as job loss], and the potential impact this has on the self or others. Hoggett’s agency typology emphasises ‘reflexive’ agency, mediated by a range of triggers that are grounded in material disadvantage, past experiences within diverse social relationships, and from dealing with a wide range of enabling and constraining structures
 p. 48.
In Hoggett’s model individuals are recognised as ambivalent and emotionally driven, with an unconscious subjective dimension: social subjects with agency but unable to always exercise it reflexively
. Hoggett’s model spans high levels of reflexivity through to habitual or instinctive behaviour or non-reflexivity. It also acknowledges a range of agency perspectives on a continuum from the creative ‘self-as-agent’ to the passive ‘self-as-object’. Hoggett
[51, 53] challenges agency definitions confined to rational behaviour that exclude non-rational actions often involving unintended consequences. Without recognising the importance of complex subjectivity and these forms of agency there is no adequate explanation for addictions, depression, or self-harming behaviours, unless attributable to genetic or physiological factors. Both the interior world of emotional suffering and the external world of structural constraints impact on the individual and his or her capacity for agency, and in turn, the ability to take actions to either promote or detract from health.
While job loss is understood to be detrimental to mental health, less is known about how structural factors affect the way workers respond to losing their jobs. We contribute to this understanding by examining the mental health impacts of job loss and the ways in which workers’ experiences of job loss from one automobile factory were shaped by the company and public policies prevalent at the time of the job loss. Lister’s and Hoggett’s agency models are used to theorise the interplay of agency and structural factors.