The quality of work and well-being: are we doing enough?

In recent years, concerns over the quality of work have prompted debates surrounding methods of improving job quality, and the relationship between the quality of work and employee well-being. Existing research has attempted to identify the constituents of job quality and ‘good work’. Factors argued as affecting the relative quality of jobs include pay (including relative income levels), skill, levels of autonomy, variety, work intensity, the length of the working day/week, job security, opportunities for training and development, and availability of flexible working arrangements.

For a growing portion of the labour force participation in paid work is insecure, and characterised by periods of temporary or reduced hours work, and gaps in employment. These patterns are the result of an increasingly flexibilised labour market in which flexibility is often employer-oriented. These forms of ‘precarious’ work include agency, zero-hour, reduced hours and ‘gig’ self-employment, and can result in multiple job holding and underemployment. Data from the UK Labour Force Survey shows that almost three per cent of employees (904,000) reported being on a zero-hours contract in April–June 2016, an increase from around 0.5 per cent in 2008. A further 324,000 UK workers reported agency ‘temporary’ jobs in April–June 2016.

Meanwhile, the rise of the ‘gig economy’, although providing potential opportunities to workers who desire high levels of flexibility and/or possess higher levels of employability eg, the highly skilled, has created fresh concerns around working conditions for at least some of these workers, and is directly linked to reported growth in precarious part-time self-employment especially among those leaving unemployment.

These concerns will be considered as part of the Taylor Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy, which will run to mid-2017 having begun in late 2016. The Taylor Review will study a number of themes of relevance to job quality in the modern labour market, including involuntary freelancing and self-employment, the ‘gig’ economy and the impact of ‘disruptive’ business models and technologies.

My recent research has provided important insight into specific aspects of the quality of work and its relationship with well-being, feeding into current debates and policy agendas. A number of these issues are drawn together in my book 'Time Well Spent: Subjective Well-being and the Organization of Time', where contemporary patterns of employment and the quality of work are reflected upon. Meanwhile, my research into workplace culture has found that employees with higher levels of autonomy, an important indicator of the quality of work, reported positive effects on their overall well-being and higher levels of job satisfaction. The research, published in the journal 'Work and Occupations', examined changes in reported well-being relative to levels of autonomy using two separate years of data for 20,000 employees from the Understanding Society survey. Greater levels of control over work tasks and schedule have the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, which was found to be evident in reported well-being. Moreover, effects were different for men and women, highlighting that employers can benefit not only from providing greater opportunities for autonomy, but that specific consideration needs to be given to the relative benefits that different forms of autonomy provide to different employees.

Other recent research reported in 'Work, Employment and Society', which used data from the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society, considered the impacts of the use of flexible working arrangements. The research showed that while in principle these arrangements offer a number of benefits to employees and employers, and can improve experiences of work, they are currently limited in some instances as use of arrangements reflects constraint and acceptance of, often lower quality, reduced hours forms of employment, especially among working women.

What is evident from both research and current policy debates is that improving the quality of work is essential not only for employee well-being, but for potential economic benefits to organisations and the economy. As the recent Responsible Business Week at the University of Birmingham has highlighted, employers can take the lead in generating positive societal impacts through their own actions. Working to improve the quality of work is one area where these impacts can and should be recognised.

Dr Daniel Wheatley

Senior Lecturer, Birmingham Business School