This paper investigates the relationship between local unemployment rates and individual ill health. It is a case study of Britain in 1984–1991 based on secondary data analysis of the two sweeps of the Health and Lifestyle Survey (1993). High levels of unemployment are distinguished from increasing rates of unemployment and the effects of each on health in different employment statuses are compared, as are the outcomes for contrasting measures of ill health. Increasing rates of unemployment are seen to impact on job stress, but it is high levels of unemployment that influence premature death and self assessed health. Respiratory function is unaffected by unemployment rates. The effects of unemployment rates hold for all employment statuses, regardless of the higher job stress among the full-time employed and their otherwise better life expectancy and self assessed health. The relationships for unemployment rates and employment status are not confounded by sex, age, region or social class.