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Jobs: Not just a numbers game

Stephen Overell

18 March 2011

We know more about the meaning and value of work from people who do not have it rather than those who do. Many social scientific studies down the years have found that joblessness carries a profound psychological burden that appears to occur independently of financial hardship. Work provides time structures to the day, it obliges participation in shared activities and it generates status and identity. Without it, people and places often go to pieces. Apathy sets in, simple tasks take longer, there is less social contact and what little money there is goes on luxuries before necessities. Such studies underpin the at-first striking declaration that work is actually the greatest influence over human happiness after love and friendship.

Now, however, a team of researchers in Australia has supplemented this understanding with a deceptively simple caveat: it depends on the job. Reported in the Occupational and Environmental Medicine on 14 March, and using data that tracks survey respondents over time, their study confirms that unemployed people have worse mental health than those in work.

Yet merely moving into work did not lead to an improvement. In fact, the transition from unemployment to low quality work worsened mental health. Instead, the job had to be of a certain level of “psychosocial quality” to be beneficial, meaning it had to be relatively secure, that the pay was perceived to be fair, that work demands were not excessive, and that people could exert some influence over when and how their work was done.
People stuck in a poorly paying, tightly controlled jobs and subject to externally imposed targets had much poorer mental health scores than those who saw their pay as fairer and their autonomy as higher. In effect, a threshold of psychosocial job quality had to be in operation before work could be said to enhance wellbeing.

As expected, one might think. But the significance is in the political implications. Countries with “work-first” policies may not necessarily succeed in increasing wellbeing and in dedicating themselves single-mindedly to the quantity of jobs in a society, policymakers ignore the critical social and psychological importance of the quality of jobs. Only when the work is “good work” does psychological health improve.
The contemporary relevance hardly needs stressing. Under the slogan of making work pay, the Coalition aims to incentivise the workless to take work, arguing that doing so will help the life chances (and economic circumstances) of individuals and families. The evidence suggests not any job will do. Plenty of work is of little or no help at all.

It is noteworthy, too, that some aspects of job quality are generally deteriorating. All occupational groups report falls in their autonomy, many claim increases in their stress and insecurity is emerging as a strong theme in the wake of the recession.
Issues of autonomy and work intensity may not be easy to address with traditional regulatory fixes; their origins lie in competitive pressures, in how technology is deployed in workplaces and in power imbalances in work relationships.

Yet a central political mistake is to assume that job creation alone will sort things out and policy should steer clear of the quality of work. Actually, many recent job quality interventions have been generally helpful – the national minimum wage and flexible working entitlements spring to mind – while others are justified in principle if lacking in practical effectiveness (information and consultation regulations).

The warning from the Australian study is that the experience of work, not merely the existence of a job, is the decisive influence over wellbeing.