Quality and quantity – The growing evidence on what makes unhealthy work

The Work Foundation has long been a proponent of the idea that ‘good’ quality work – work that is fulfilling, stable, over which you have some control and autonomy, and feel is fair – is good for health. In contrast ‘bad’ quality work, which has none of these features, is actually detrimental for health. The importance of this was further emphasised by research (2011) from Australia which suggested that though unemployment is often bad for health, bad quality work is actually worse.

It is in this context that the data from Australia’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey becomes all the more concerning. ‘Use It Too Much and Lose It? The Effect of Working Hours on Cognitive Ability’, a paper published earlier this year by researchers at Melbourne University’s Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, has indicated that for workers aged 40 and over, full-time work may be harmful for health. They found “for working hours up to around 25 hours a week, an increase in working hours has a positive impact on cognitive functioning. However, when working hours exceed 25 hours per week, an increase in working hours has a negative impact on cognition.” The suggestion here is that after a certain age, reducing working hours might be optimal. This is particularly true when we look at the effect that cognitive dysfunction can have on employment outcomes.

Concerns about the effect that work has on health have been heightened recently by another study (published in the Lancet), which suggests that sedentary behaviours, illustrated by sitting at your desk all day, is also harmful for health – indeed, the harmful effects have been compared to those associated with smoking. This adds a further dimension to what might constitute good or bad quality work as pertains to health.

Though the Melbourne University analysis does not does not look at job quality, it is probable that teasing out some of this detail would allow for a nuanced consideration of the circumstances in which work quantity influences health. Further research should tackle whether higher work quality could mitigate the negative effects of longer working hours. The work quality issue is further complicated by our lack of understanding of what ‘good’ work actually looks like for different population groups, including older workers – a topic of interest to the Centre for Ageing Better. Though there are many more avenues for investigation, current evidence clearly indicates that both quantity and quality of work can influence health, and particularly so for older workers.

With the retirement age increasing, and many of us in the UK expecting to work well into our 60s if not beyond, such concerns are heightened. Issues of quantity and quality of work have many quantity implications – for example, given back-to-work programmes are so resolutely focused on getting people into any job, while Universal Credit encourages people to work more hours. This runs somewhat counter to new developments elsewhere – in particular the Swedish investigation of the benefits of reducing daily working hours. Increasing remote working opportunities and the proliferation of mobile technology may mean some people feel always ‘switched on’; this presents yet another concern and suggests an area for further research.

With both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition putting worker’s rights and working age poverty high on their agendas, and with the uncertainty (and the reality) of Brexit potentially effecting the labour market in the near future it is crucial that we take a long hard look at the market and the jobs we are producing, and consider what the implications are of this for population health over the medium to long-term. We hope that these issues are firmly on the agenda of the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Minister of State for Disabled People – particularly as the Work and Health Green Paper continues to be developed.