Gordon Brown once argued that the UK should aim for both full and fulfilling employment. Implicit in this aspiration is the notion that just 'having a job' should not be sufficient for most people, and that employment in the 21st century labour market should be a source, among other things, of wellbeing, personal growth and meaning for as many as possible.
The recession and a sharp increase in unemployment may well have put this aspiration on hold for a while, but the weight of evidence to support the view that job quality, employee health, engagement and productivity are closely linked is now becoming substantial and should not be forgotten as the labour market makes its gradual recovery in the coming months.
But should people be expected to accept 'bad jobs', even in the teeth of a recession? It is clear that a large number of UK workers in a significant number of organisations are engaged in jobs that fail to conform to the core criteria of 'good work'.
Indeed, it seems that many organisations have either not been convinced by the case for 'good jobs', have difficulty turning its principles into practice, or offer 'bad jobs' as a rational response to undemanding consumers. The important factors that drive job quality could be summarised as follows:
- Employment security
- If work is characterised by monotony and repetition
- If employees have autonomy, control and task discretion
- The balance between the efforts that workers make and the rewards they receive
- If employees possess the skills they need to cope with periods of intense pressure
- If the workplace is seen to be fair - do workers feel the employer respects the principles of procedural justice?
- The strength of workplace relationships - or what some researchers have described as 'social capital'.
A major challenge, therefore, for policy-makers, researchers and practitioners is how to make a more compelling and accessible case for 'good jobs'. Another is to provide employers with practical support to improve job quality in a way that goes 'with the grain' of business. To meet these challenges, it will be important to understand - at the level of the firm - what can stimulate sustained demand for improved job quality.
Encouragingly, Good Jobs, a new report from The Work Foundation, commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive, shows that many employers remain committed to improving the quality of jobs in the UK but lack guidance on how to achieve this.
As organisations prepare for recovery after the recession, the government needs to champion better working conditions. It must also take a lead in supporting employers to do more to improve job quality as the need to tackle the root causes of lost productivity and ill-health becomes more and more acute.
However, our research has identified a number of barriers to the growth of 'good jobs' in some organisations. These include weak management skills; tradition and inertia in the design of jobs; low trust, which limits access to greater autonomy for employees; time pressures; and the recession. In supporting employers, the government needs to address these barriers.
One centralised body with a clear identity and a clear remit to work in partnership with employers to crack many of the UK's persistent job quality problems should immediately be set up by the government. This body should help to share and promote best practice, publishing case studies, for example, and promoting networking opportunities so employers can learn from each other.
However, one size will not fit all; more research is also needed to understand the characteristics of organisations that respond to similar messages and the types of support and best practice different organisations might benefit from. Best practice is out there but we also have the opportunity for innovation.
The government has a role to play in incentivising employers to experiment with new approaches to good jobs. Overcoming the barriers organisations face to improving job quality is essential if we are to give more access to good jobs, from which both employers and the wider economy will benefit in years to come.
Stephen Bevan, managing director, The Work Foundation