Wellbeing of UK workers hit by perfect storm

Chris Gray photoThree recently released reports have highlighted the ‘perfect storm’ of recession, government austerity, and long term technological changes that are severely undermining the working life and wellbeing of the UK workforce.


These findings come from the latest Skills and Employment Survey, which focuses on the work that people do and how working life has changed over time. They offer a number of key lessons for employers and policymakers.


Some of these are depressingly predictable. Fear at Work in Britain reveals that since 2001 the proportion of employees who are afraid of losing their job has risen from around 17% to 25%, with the public sector workforce, rocked by government austerity, now more insecure than their private sector counterparts. Similarly over 30% of employees are now fearful of pay reductions.


Job-Related Well-Being in Britain highlights the fact that the proportion of employees feeling a high level of job-related stress has risen from 12% to 17% since 2006. Though less marked, the proportion of employees expressing anxiety, or ‘low contentment’, at work has also risen from 15-19%.


Some findings are more surprising. Fear at Work in Britain also demonstrates that those employees who felt that they had a great deal/quite a lot of influence over changes at work were significantly less likely to be anxious about changes at work.


This is echoed in the third and final report, Work Intensification in Britain. Here it is shown that ‘high strain’ jobs, those that demand high effort levels but allow employees little control, remain a concern. Although this issue emerged in an early period, following an initial rise from 23% to 36% of jobs that were ‘high strain’ between 1992 and 2001, it is evident that increasing employee participation in management would help here.


Since 2007 workers have been hit on all fronts, with increased fears over job loss and pay, increased stress and anxiety at work, and the continuance of a high proportion of jobs requiring ‘very hard’ work. From this perfect storm we can expect increased absenteeism, sickness, accident rates, and even family breakdowns. All of these will affect the general wellbeing and happiness of our society, but will also have an impact on productivity.


In the long term, macro-economic policy solutions will be crucial in restarting growth and minimizing instability but there is a cheaper and more immediate solution which trade unions and employers can begin to work on now – increasing worker participation.


In the words of one of the authors of Fear at Work, Professor Alan Felstead, ‘the slowness with which employers in Britain are enhancing employee participation is becoming an issue of considerable concern. In general, better job control entails increased employee involvement and participation. The intention should be to improve the balance between the benefits of hard work and the costs.’

Fair Work for Young People: Mission Impossible?

As was highlighted on their release, the results of the Unions21 Fair Work Commission employment survey contained some encouraging lessons for the trade union movement.


There is evidently an appetite amongst the UK workforce for a type of ‘social justice’ campaigns which the unions are well placed to deliver. Three quarters of working people are more likely to buy from Living Wage employers, 83% think that the national minimum wage is not sufficient to meet the living costs in Britain, and 72% would support a legal cap on the total bonus any individual can receive.

However, if we look beneath these headlines, and focus in on the views of young people (18-34) some interesting, and some worrying, trends are revealed. Some of these are well known. Young people, for instance, are less likely to be trade union members. Others can be directly linked to recent developments in the workplace. Younger workers place less emphasis on discrimination and temporary employment as barriers to ‘fairness’ in the workplace, likely reflecting increased regulatory protection against employment discrimination and the normalisation of a far more flexible labour market. 

Some findings will come as more of a surprise. To start with, young workers are significantly more likely to think that power lies in the employee’s hands, rather than in the employer’s. Twenty seven per cent of those surveyed felt that this was the case, compared to 17.9% amongst the 35-54 age group, and 9.6% amongst those above 55.

Whether this reflects reality, or just a growing naivety, there are corresponding lessons to be learnt for unions. As can be seen in the graph below, significantly fewer members of the younger age group see protection from employers as a trade union priority compared to older groups. By contrast pay is growing importance to young workers.
These lessons are not as simple as they may seem. Contradictorily, compared to the rest of the working population members of this same age group are 12% more likely to think that pay is already fairly distributed in their workplace and 15% more likely to think that their wages have kept up with rising living costs over the last two years,. Assuming that these younger workers are employed in the same workplaces as their older colleagues this suggests a troubling acceptance of pay disparities and a lack of awareness of real term cuts in their salaries. 

Furthermore, amongst younger workers there is a noticeable decline in interest in the ‘social justice’ agendas mentioned at the beginning of this article. Younger workers are 11% less likely to support a legal cap on bonuses and 6% less likely to oppose unpaid internships. This second point is particularly bizarre as younger workers are far more likely to be exploited by unpaid internships. It suggests either a growing acceptance of unpaid internships, or a growing desperation amongst young people, or both.

For the labour movement all of this suggests an emergent need for extensive education and awareness campaigns amongst young workers. The example of the normalisation of temporary work cited previously, a battle seemingly lost long ago, should be enough of a warning of what may happen if we do not act.

Here the Living Wage should be a source of optimism. Amongst the 18-34, which is 5% more likely to feel that the minimum wage is already adequate compared to the rest of the workforce, there is actually 7% more support for the concept of a Living Wage. Credit for this must go to those behind the Living Wage campaign, whose use of imaginative organising strategies and modern communication methods has evidently caught the imagination many young people. For the unions this dissonance suggests that the right campaign can still reach out to young workers, and can push back the incoming tide of apathy.

The germ of one such campaign is perhaps contained within these results. Young workers are impressively progressive in their views of paternity leave, with 60.3% of 18-34 year olds in support of the extension of paid paternity leave from two to six weeks, compared to 32% amongst the rest of the workforce. Similarly, young people are 14% more likely to support paid leave for those caring for seriously ill family members. Furthermore, as can be seen in the graph above, family friendly workplaces is an area which younger generations are increasingly identifying as a priority for their trade unions. 

Modern marketing techniques often teach us to segment individuals based on their narrow self-interest. However, it would seem that in an increasingly isolated and fragmented society we need to look beyond the supposed individualism of younger generations, and consider the importance they place on the relationships they have with those around them. There are few easy answers for trade unions today, but protection of the family and an emphasis on localised relationships, two things which are, coincidentally, closely associated with the Living Wage, would seem a sensible starting point.


Unions21 will be at the NASUWT conference on Sunday to take part in a discussion on young people and fair work.


Brothers on the line

I wouldn’t waste 10 minutes of my life if the labor movement said, ‘We just want ours and the public be damned.’ . . . We’ve, got to make progress with the community and not at the expense of the community. -Walter Reuther, 1967

NOSTALGIA IN a film about the career of the Reuther brothers, directed by one of their grandsons and narrated by Martin Sheen, is not unexpected. Their story is, after all, one of a battle between good and evil, between the hungry working class and ruthless corporate bosses, and even between strikers and paid mobsters. It is a tale of three brothers who began organising Detroit auto-workers in the 1920s and 1930s, and who quickly rose up through the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and AFL-CIO. Read More…

What do young people want from trade unions?

The Unions21 publication: Hit Hardest, scarred longest – Young workers during the crisis


The Unions21 fringe ‘Creating Opportunities for Young Workers’ takes place at the Labour Party Conference today.Ahead of the event, Chris Gray asks: What do young people want from unions?


This is a subject that is often conspicuous in its absence from discussions about the state of youth membership of unions. From the perspective of a generation facing terrifying levels of youth unemployment and feeling like we are paying where our elders did not, it is easy to see the trade unions as defending the interests of others, most recently in the role they have played in the defence of public sector pension schemes. As Dai Hudd, Deputy Secretary of Prospect, asked in a recent Unions21 pamphlet, ‘is it fair that cost sharing arrangements devised for public sector pension schemes transfer increases in future costs to younger workers?’

Read More…