Bad jobs can be worse for our health than the experience of unemployment
09 March 2012
The Work Foundation, ever since its earliest incarnation as the Boy’s Welfare Society in 1918, has always had a strong conviction that work can and should be an enriching and animating experience for everyone. In the last decade, we’ve been carrying out research on the economic and social consequences of the steady decline in job quality in the UK labour market. We have argued in favour of more Good Work because it helps drive labour productivity, employee engagement, physical and psychological health and well-being.
These conclusions echo those of Professor Sir Michael Marmot, the International Labour Organisation and a host of eminent psychologists, occupational health physicians, epidemiologists and some economists. Even his holiness Pope Benedict XVI has supported the principle of ‘decent work’ though, to my knowledge, he’s yet to publish his results in a peer-reviewed journal.
Last year, The Work Foundation worked with an eminent group of business and union leaders, under the chairmanship of Alan Parker of Brunswick Group, to consider how the UK can generate more Good Work. The report of the Good Work Commission set out why Good Work is an important component of ‘Doing Better Business’. The Commissioners were all acutely aware that Good Work is not a pious aspiration or a luxury. It’s about UK business competitiveness.
The recent row about unpaid work experience and welfare benefits has shone a light, once again, on the issue of job quality. Some are now arguing that, with high unemployment, any job is a good job and that beggars can’t be choosers in today’s labour market. Moreover, we are told that anyone advocating the case for good jobs – especially for unemployed people – is a ‘Job Snob’. Much of this debate of course, is highly politicised, and I’m not going to be tempted into it, mainly because it seems to be an evidence-free zone.
However, I do offer one thought to those who argue that we can’t afford the luxury of Good Work at a time of ‘fiscal consolidation’.
We know that being out of work is bad for our health. We also know that being in a good job which you enjoy, where you use your skills, get challenged and exercise control and discretion, is almost always good for our health. The assumption has been that, on this continuum, being in a poor quality job (no control, lots of routine etc) is at least better than being out of work. Indeed, this assumption underpins the view that unemployed people are better off doing any kind of work than none at all. From several perspectives this is probably true, for example keeping the work ’habit’, populating your CV and getting a work-based qualification But, where mental health is concerned the opposite is often true. Bad jobs can be worse for our health than the experience of unemployment.
For the evidence we need look no further than some very compelling data from Australia. The HILDA survey (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) has carried out seven waves of data collection among 7,155 respondents of working age. It has, among other things, measured the effects of job quality and worklessness on psychosocial health. Here’s what the authors conclude:
… ‘we found that those respondents who were unemployed had significantly poorer mental health than those who were employed. However, the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or more often superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality’.
The research also looked at whether movements between employment and unemployment ,and vice versa, had an impact on health. Again, the same effect:
‘….while moving from unemployment to a high quality job led to an improvement in mental health, the transition to a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed.’
Now, I try really hard to tell myself it may be better if I tactically de-emphasize my belief in Good Work for everyone , until the labour market picks up a bit. But this new data, and the somewhat punitive tone of those who argue that taking a bad job is somehow character-building for the feckless, have reinforced my views. For the sake of the mental health of those at the margins of the labour market, evidence-based discussions about Good Work are necessary.