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Stephen  Bevan

Constrained Work: Are some jobs just too boring to be enriched?

Authors: Stephen Bevan Professor Stephen Bevan

05 February 2014

Zoe waits tables in a down-market restaurant on the South Coast. Food sits in the ‘eat as much as you like’ carvery for hours on end and she works long, irregular shifts on the minimum wage with no overtime and precious few ‘tips’ from hard-up customers. Zoe went to FE college and got a series of good vocational qualifications in art, design and bookkeeping – far more qualifications than she needs for this job. Most of her time is spent seating customers, trying to persuade them to have starters and desserts and clearing tables. She gets more verbal abuse from customers than she ever expected but always puts herself forward for extra shifts because she is behind with her rent.

When I ask her whether she likes her job she shrugs her shoulders and says that some of the other waitresses are OK but she hates most of the customers and the way she is treated by both them and her bosses. ‘There are plenty more who will take your job if you’re too good for it’, one of them told her recently.

Zoe’s experience of work in the low wage, low skill end of today’s job market is not untypical. She is part of the Bottom Ten Million  people in the UK facing in-work poverty which The Work Foundation has been focusing on. Recent estimates show that 80 per cent of the 587,000 new jobs created are primarily in low wage sectors of the economy. We also know that underemployment has increased by one million since the start of the downturn, and the labour market for low wage, low skilled work is likely to continue growing. Any aspiration that people like Zoe might have to grow her skills, take on more responsibility or do more varied and challenging work in their current workplaces feel naïve and fanciful.

But in a new report published today by The Work Foundation we challenge the notion that some jobs are just too boring or routine to be enriched. In Constrained Work? Job enrichment and employee engagement in low wage, low skilled work we look at what has been happening in the lower reaches of the labour market. We highlight the need for employers to rise to the challenge of providing engaging and challenging work for the thousands of people who are only using 40 per cent of their skills, talent, creativity and energy. We argue that high unemployment and a ready supply of candidates for each post has provided a buffer for those (mercifully few) employers who see their staff as a disposable cost rather as a source of new ideas and enthusiasm. We provide case studies of ways that, in call centre environments for example, simple but engaging adjustments to job responsibilities or roles can increase motivation and engagement – leading to higher productivity.

Zoe says that she’d like the chance to work in the kitchen occasionally for a bit of variety and that she’d be interested in seeing how stock ordering works and how the restaurants works out its prices and controls its costs. But nobody ever asks her what else she’d like to do and she is too nervous to ask. She’s still waiting.

It doesn’t need to be this way. But until we find ways of building the capacity of UK managers to enrich even the most ‘constrained’ jobs – and to see the great results this can bring - we risk parts of the UK labour market remaining in a low wage, low skill, low aspiration and low morale equilibrium.