The Work Foundation history includes two world wars, the emergence of the computer, several global financial crises, joining the European Union and perhaps, by the time this arrives in your inbox, leaving it. May we live in interesting times, a British adage if there ever was one.

In 1918, the “Welfare Association for Boys” was founded by reverent Robert Hyde to improve the working conditions of young boys in munitions factories, whom he correctly identified as having some issues with life expectancy. They had very little of it. The Association soon expanded its remit to improving health and working conditions at work for all workers from 1919 and accordingly changed its name to the Industrial Welfare Society. Across its different iterations, the organisation has remained true to its founding principles, which is to gather evidence from the ground up and to promote good practice through knowledge sharing.

From a long list of achievements and anecdotes unearthed during the preparations for the Work Foundation’s Centenary celebrations, some contributions stand out because their implementation is so commonplace today that we easily forget. For example, workers did not always have access to sanitary facilities at the workplace. One hundred years on from Hyde’s advocacy for this luxury, we also recommend bathroom breaks for Amazon Warehouse Workers today. Also, the Society played a part in the establishment of fracture clinics in the 1920s, which treated and rehabilitated patients with bone fractures, who would otherwise have been condemned to lifelong infirmity, or in the worst-case infection and death. If Dickens had still been alive in the 1920s, the Society’s efforts would have left him with very little to write about.

Patronised by King George VI and later Prince Philip, by the 1960s, the Industrial Society was an all-around trusted resource through its strong links with industry, trade unions and government. It focused on schemes to advance productivity, training, positive leadership and good communication within organisations, supporting the workers voice and empowering workers through good working conditions and industrial relations. Prevalent concerns then, over the changing nature of work due to technological advancement, are still very much relevant today. Made hilarious by the gift of hindsight, a 1970s article in the Society’s quarterly journal reported alarm among manufacturers that young workers hardly knew how to operate a phone. Many an employer today would wish youth operated their phones a little less well.

More seriously, these flashes from the past illustrate that the social, industrial and business landscape has changed immensely over the past one hundred years, and the organisation has correspondingly evolved with the times. But at the same time there are some common threads from which we can learn. In 2010, the Work Foundation entered a new phase when it pooled vision and resources with Lancaster University, enabling us to keep building on a century of promoting good work. Here’s to the next 100 years.


About the author

Rebecca Florisson

Policy Analyst at the Work Foundation