September 1, 2021

How does Fulfilling Work fit into the new strategy?

By Gail Irvine, Carnegie UK

At Carnegie UK, we’re excited to be embarking on our new strategic plan. You can download a copy of the strategy here, or read blogs from our CEO here and Chair here about what this means for our work in the coming years.

Over the past five years one of Carnegie UK’s main themes of activity has been the issue of ‘Fulfilling Work’. In this blog post I highlight why this matters to wellbeing, note some of the key aspects of this agenda that we have focused on over the past few years, and set out how we’ll be thinking about fulfilling work in our new strategy.

Work and Wellbeing

Unemployment has a significant negative impact on wellbeing. As well as affecting income and being a factor in poverty, for individuals who are unemployed there is a documented negative effect on self-esteem, self-worth and feelings of social isolation. In communities and societies where high numbers of people are unemployed, this leads to multiplier effects, with the potential to impair social cohesion and stoke social grievance and unrest. High levels of unemployment negatively affect community wellbeing, with affected communities likely to have worse outcomes related for example to poverty and health. Periods of high unemployment are correlated with reduced volunteerism and higher crime in society. Poverty driven by unemployment reduces people’s ability to spend and sustain businesses in their local area, which can limit job opportunities as well as leisure and consumer pursuits locally, all impacting on sense of place, purpose and community. High levels of unemployment weakens spending in the economy, placing strain on the ability of the economy to generate jobs, wealth, and valued public services in the aggregate too.

Simply being in employment is only the start for improving wellbeing though: work that offers attributes such as fair pay, security, supportive colleagues and management, or opportunities to express your voice or progress, has much greater wellbeing enhancing potential for individuals than work that is poorly paid, insecure, or bad for health.

In recent years the link between work and wellbeing has been challenged by growing numbers of people in in-work poverty, use of insecure work contracts, diminishing worker voice and access to training, and uses of digital technologies to commodify or intensify work. Over the last five years we have undertaken a variety of projects UK-wide and in particular jurisdictions and regions, to understand the key determinants of work that supports wellbeing, and the policy and structural changes needed to make it available to many more people. Our work has included scoping out a job quality measurement framework for the UK; supporting the development of the Living Wage Places scheme; exploring the future of the minimum wage, examining the links between precarious work and mental health and the disadvantages experienced by ethnic minority workers in the labour market, exploring how public sector procurement can be used to support good work; and examining the interaction between quality of work and the UK’s productivity performance.

Over the past 18 months, the severe impact of COVID-19 has brought substantial new concerns with regards to both access to work and the quality of work available. Business models continue to be deeply disrupted by the pandemic, as well as by changes to trading and staffing precipitated by Brexit, particularly in low-paid sectors. The medium and long-term consequences of these changes for the labour market and how it impacts on wellbeing remain unclear, but the possibilities of higher unemployment, and deteriorating working conditions and opportunities, are undoubtedly real. In our horizon scanning as part of our Strategic Review, we concluded there are looming threats to wellbeing from rising poverty and inequality as a result of rising unemployment, and the potential for reductions in quality of work, including higher levels of insecurity, underemployment, isolation and a loss of control and agency.

As a mission-led organisation, focused on improving collective wellbeing, it is clear that the importance of work to wellbeing is set to remain high on our radar in the coming years.

Flexible work is our first priority

Reflecting this context, we scoped a number of potential areas of activity related to work that we might focus on in the first phase of our new strategy. We have identified the issue of Flexible Work as our first priority for the immediate period.

Interest in flexible work has surged as the pandemic ushered in a ‘great home-working experiment’ for swathes of the workforce. Greater use of home working may offer the potential to enhance wellbeing through increased flexibility, control and work-life balance. But the potential loss of social support, interaction, opportunities for learning and loneliness also present significant wellbeing threats.

It is critical to remember too that the majority of workers have not been working from home during the pandemic – including key workers and many people in low-paid work. Any debate about how work can be re-designed to enable wellbeing must also address the situation of these workers.

Home-working and flexibility are also not synonymous. Flexibility can also come from part-time flexitime, compressed hours or job share arrangements, or greater input into shift patterns. Even before the pandemic, the unequal distribution of flexible working opportunities across the labour market has been a barrier for people who want or need working arrangements other than full-time to access and progress in work as they might want to. The fact that COVID-induced home working is much more prevalent in higher paid than lower paid and frontline job roles[1] risks exacerbating inequality, and excluding many workers from a debate about how flexible work could potentially be harnessed to improve wellbeing through offering greater opportunity, work-life balance, autonomy, and progression.

Over the next few weeks and months we’ll be undertaking exploratory work to consider these issues in greater depth and to consider what contribution Carnegie UK could potentially make to advancing wellbeing in this field.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you wish to discuss flexible work with us, and share ideas of the evidence, policy or actions that could help us support solutions that improve wellbeing.

[1] 80% of workers in the top income quartile were able to work from home, versus less than half of workers in the bottom income quartile; while key workers are excluded from COVID-19 ‘stay at home’ guidance. See