Why intersectionality matters for good work – tackling race inequality, precarious work and mental health

March 2, 2020

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by Douglas White, Carnegie UK Trust

The concept of ‘good work’ has had a welcome increase in profile and attention in UK policy debate in recent years.  At the Carnegie UK Trust, we’re interested in improving wellbeing – and the relationship between work and personal, community and societal wellbeing is well-documented. Work can provide us with the financial resources to buy the goods and services that we need; help us build connections within and between our communities; and give us a personal and a collective sense of purpose and identity.

The quality of the work we enjoy also matters greatly. Pay, security, opportunities for training and progression, peer support, the quality of line management, the intensity of work, how our voice is represented and our work-life balance, all have a highly significant impact on how we experience work and on our wellbeing.

At the Trust, we’ve sought over the past four years to advance the position of good work in key public policy arenas. For example, by exploring how a focus on good work can help tackle the UK’s deep-rooted productivity puzzle; by setting out new proposals for measurement and accountability on good work metrics at a national level; and by advocating for increased use of public procurement power to reward firms meeting good work practices.

Across each of these initiatives we’ve sought to promote the importance of good work for all workers. We’ve also highlighted the significant inequalities that workers in different industrial sectors, different regions and different demographic groups currently experience in relation to many of those key indicators of good work described above.

In our latest report, published this week in partnership with Operation Black Vote and the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at University College London, we take a deep dive into a particular dimension of these inequalities – the relationship between precarious work, mental health and ethnicity, as experienced by young workers.

The intersection of these issues is important. Previous research has highlighted the challenges commonly experienced in the labour market by both young workers and by Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers. The growth in precarious forms of work, including temporary contracts, zero hours contracts and the emergence of the platform-based ‘gig economy’ has attracted significant public and political attention in recent years. Meanwhile, in the past decade there has been a step change in public and policy recognition of the importance of mental health and of the significant numbers of people experiencing or likely to experience a mental health problem at some stage of their lives.

By bringing these complex issues together we’ve drawn a number of conclusions about how they intersect and identified a series of recommendations for government, employers and mental health practitioners.

We believe action on these issues is intrinsically important. We also hope, however, that this project helps to demonstrate that to effectively tackle inequality in access to good work we need to properly understand the complex relationships between a range of different factors; assess how these play out in the labour market; and encourage a coordinated response from often disparate policy agendas.  The lens we’ve applied here to race, youth, precarity and mental health could be applied to a wide range of demographic characteristics, aspects of good work and wellbeing outcomes.

The key findings from our analysis are as follows:

  1. There is an important race equality dimension to labour market participation and experiences for 25 year olds in England. Millennials from BAME backgrounds were more likely to be unemployed than their White counterparts; more likely to be on a zero-hours contract; more likely to be working a second job; more likely to be doing shift work; and less likely to have a permanent contract.


  1. Within that broad picture, a detailed understanding of the specific labour market experiences of different BAME groups is essential if effective policy and practice responses are to be delivered. For example, although 25-year-olds from Pakistani, Black African, Other (which includes Chinese, Arab and any other Asian group) and Mixed-race backgrounds were more likely to be unemployed than their White peers; Indian, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean adults were no more likely to be out of work. Pakistani millennials were more likely to be on a zero-hours contract or be working shifts, and less likely to have a permanent job than their White peers. Black African and 25-year-olds whose ethnic group is classed as ‘Other’, had lower odds of being in a permanent role and were more likely to be doing shift work than White workers of the same age. But Mixed-race, Indian and Black Caribbean millennials had similar chances of being in these types of jobs.


  1. Across all ethnic groups there are significant links between employment experiences and poor mental health. In particular, being unemployed, working shifts or being on a zero-hours contract are all associated with a significantly greater risk of having poor mental health at age 25. However, it is important to note that despite a focus on the precariousness of this generation’s employment, the probability of having a permanent contract is over 80% for all ethnic groups.


  1. The data show that although BAME young people are at greater risk of being in precarious work, there is no additional advantage or disadvantage in terms of reported mental health for ethnic minorities at age 25 who are in precarious work compared to White adults in precarious work. More broadly, the data show that some ethnic minority groups in the Next Steps cohort are less likely to report having mental ill health symptoms compared to the White group; but higher rates of mental ill health are reported among Mixed Heritage, Black Caribbean and Other ethnicity groups at age 25, compared to their White peers.


  1. The report findings suggest that the link between precarious work and poor mental health is a concern for all, rather than having a specific ethnicity dimension, at least at age 25. However, these findings must be considered in the context of the recognised difficulties in comparing mental health between different ethnic groups; and the very particular, significant and well documented challenges that BAME communities continue to experience in relation to access and engagement with mental health services.


  1. Adolescent mental ill health is a strong and significant predictor of mental ill health. Those who reported symptoms of mental ill health at age 14 or age 16 are more likely to report mental ill health at age 25.


These challenging issues require a policy response. We set out 13 recommendations in our report for government, employers and mental health practitioners, to help overcome some of the difficulties of precarious work and poor mental health experienced by young workers from different ethnic groups. These recommendations can roughly be categorised into three broad areas:

  1. We need to significantly improve the understanding and recognition of intersectionality across key government policies and strategies. For example, the ‘Good Work Plan’, the UK Government’s flagship strategy to improve access to good work does not currently include any specific actions on the relationship between mental health and good work, or on tackling racial inequalities in access to good work. Improved recognition of how diverse policy agendas interact and impact upon specific demographic groups could help us to deliver better outcomes and improve wellbeing for workers.


  1. Action to implement a range of promising policies that have been adopted but not yet fully delivered should be a matter of priority for the new UK Government. This includes, for example, a number of key recommendations set out in the Good Work Plan; work to establish a new system of metrics for measuring progress on good work; and the development of a Patient and Carers Race Equality Framework in mental health services. The predominance of Brexit throughout 2019 inevitably reduced political and policy bandwidth to advance activity across many areas. In 2020, with a new government with the largest majority in a decade, there is an opportunity for a range of potentially valuable policy initiatives to be brought fully to fruition.


  1. Proactive, early interventions have a vital role to play in helping to tackle many of the issues explored in this study. For example, investing in appropriate mental health support for young people, recognising that poor mental health in adolescence is a strong predictor of poor mental health in early adulthood. And for employers, working closely with employees, to develop clear and impactful interventions to tackle race inequalities in the labour force and play an active role in supporting good mental health throughout the workforce.


These intersectional issues are, by definition, complex. We look forward to working further with our partners at OBV and UCL throughout 2020 to advance the issues raised here; to help push for more action to address the challenges of race inequality in the labour force and tackle the impact of precarious work on mental health.

If you’d be interested in speaking to us about any of these issues, please do get in touch.