More and Better Jobs: Finding Fulfilling Work

November 17, 2016

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by Gail Irvine, Policy Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

The question of how to create better jobs, as well as more jobs, is an urgent public policy question. The economic recession and resulting flat-lining of pay over the past decade has only exacerbated some longer terms trends which are significantly altering people’s experiences of work. Unemployment is at a record low and that is to be celebrated. But there is a growing unease about the nature of employment that many have access to, and the impact it has on their wellbeing.

That’s why the Carnegie UK Trust has chosen ‘Fulfilling Work’ as one of our thematic priorities in our 2016-2020 strategic plan. Our mission has always been ‘to promote the good life: a flourishing society, where citizens are happy, healthy, capable and engaged;’ and we recognise that improving the wellbeing of the people requires an explicit focus on those who are the most disadvantaged.

We commissioned Ipsos MORI Scotland to analyse existing labour market data through a wellbeing lens. We wanted to understand the inequalities in the labour market, across the sectors and regions which make up the UK economy – who has access to fulfilling work, and who is missing out?

What we found is that it’s not easy to quantify what is meant by ‘fulfilling work.’ Of course earning enough money and working the hours needed to cover the cost of living are absolutely critical factors if work is to make life better. But many elements of job quality are less easily measured. You can work in a low-paid job with unsociable hours and still enjoy and find meaning in what you do. The quality of our interactions with colleagues, customers or service users can be a hugely important determinant in the sense of fulfillment we get from our work. What we want from our jobs also changes at different points in our lives and careers. Work-life balance may be a key factor if you have a young family, and low pay may not be so demoralising for a school leaver or young graduate if there is a clear path and support for progression.

People’s experience of work is highly subjective. Our research finds a surprisingly low correlation with levels of pay and satisfaction with pay. Access to workplace training and satisfaction with training opportunities are also curiously misaligned. Working longer hours is broadly linked to higher stress levels, but the risk can be mitigated by a stronger sense of satisfaction, purpose and status. Similarly, working part-time is broadly linked to higher wellbeing, but this is unlikely to be the case for the fifth of young workers in the UK who consider themselves underemployed.

The good news is that the multiplicity of factors which impact on people’s sense of wellbeing provides ample levers for change for businesses to improve employee engagement. Our research finds that small private sector employees are happier with the training they receive and feel more engaged with their employer, even though large private and public sector businesses tend to offer higher rates of pay and more opportunities for training. Creating a happy and productive workforce clearly demands action across a raft of issues, as well as meaningful engagement to understand what really matters to employees.

There are, of course, particular areas of challenge. While people’s experiences of fulfilling work are diverse, there are distinct groups of workers who appear less likely to be fulfilled across a number of measures. The care, hospitality and retail sectors crop up repeatedly in data on labour market inequalities. Young people continue to experience significant challenges progressing from low-paid and insecure work. And worrying numbers of self-employed people appear to be struggling at the sharp end of our modern, flexible ‘gig economy,’ unable to work the hours they want or access workplace rights such as pensions and paid holidays.

Our research suggests that for many people, when a broad range of factors are taken into account, fulfillment at work has, perhaps counter intuitively, improved since the mid-2000s. But growing inequality between the majority, and the groups where fulfillment is stalling or sinking demands urgent policy attention. Better jobs, not just more jobs, has to be the way forward.