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.’


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