There can be no doubt that the job market has been more resilient since the financial crisis than many imagined. Unemployment did not rise as far as was feared and the recovery in employment to pre-recession levels has been quicker than forecast by even the most optimistic labour economists. So, time for some self-congratulatory back-slapping among policy makers then? On the surface of things, at least, it looks like a jobs miracle, despite the belt-tightening of austerity.
Unfortunately, having studied the quality of jobs which many people in the UK are now doing, this is not entirely the case. The UK labour market is, indeed, performing well but we have a growing and potentially corrosive problem of poor quality, precarious and temporary work which threatens our productivity and competitiveness, levels of social inclusion and, ultimately, the health of the workforce.
Many will argue that this contingent work is essential if we are to have a flexible labour market and this, of course, has always been the case. But how about the effects of this kind of work on the people doing it?
My research has focused on the relationship between the kinds of contingent work that has poor psychosocial quality and the mental health of the workers doing it. And findings force us to ask, perhaps heretically, whether we are actually always better off in work.
Work and well-being
Psychosocial job quality involves the degree to which jobs promote control, autonomy, challenge, variety and task discretion. It effects the extent to which work enhances or diminishes our psychological well-being.
There’s a clear link between being engaged in “good work” and mental health. An important contribution to our understanding of this link has come from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey in Australia. It brings together a robust set of data that can be easily compared with other situations such as unemployment. The results, published by Peter Butterworth and colleagues at the Australian National University have global resonance for countries that are serious about developing an understanding of what being “better off” in work really means, beyond narrow economic definitions.
The received wisdom is that being out of work is a bad thing. It certainly is bad, as we know, for income. It is also bad for self-esteem, dignity, social inclusion, relationships and health. So, all other things being equal, a policy position that promotes getting people back into work is both rational and evidence-based.
But, building on this position, and especially during a period of high unemployment, the received wisdom also tells us that any job is a good job. This axiom informs current UK policy towards compulsory work experience and the “workfare” or “work-for-benefits” thinking which many politicians now favour.
Worse than unemployment
Being in poor-quality work which, perhaps, is boring, routine or represents underemployment or a poor match for the employee’s skills is widely regarded as a good way for the unemployed to remain connected to the labour market – and to keep the work habit. But Butterworth’s data contradicts this. The HILDA data shows unambiguously that the psychosocial quality of bad jobs is worse than unemployment. Butterworth looked at those moving from unemployment into employment and found that:
Those who moved into optimal jobs showed significant improvement in mental health compared to those who remained unemployed. Those respondents who moved into poor-quality jobs showed a significant worsening in their mental health compared to those who remained unemployed.
So now we have a slightly different answer to the question about the unemployed being better off in work. Yes they are, as long as they are in good-quality jobs. If they are in bad jobs, there is a perversely strong chance that they will be worse off – especially in terms of their mental health.
Again, for those who think that there should be punitive undertones to policies to get unemployed people back to work would do well to question whether the “any job is a good job” maxim is as accurate as they like to think. Moreover, we should probably question whether the revolving-door characteristics of some policies in which many people fall back out of work soon after being found a job might – in part – owe their poor performance to the damaging psychosocial quality of the work itself.
This shouldn’t stop us from straining every sinew to help people find work. But it should make us think a lot more about how the quality of jobs can affect our health and productivity. Even in a recession, the uncomfortable truth may be that “any job” may not be a good job at all.