Work and wellbeing in times of crisis
May 4, 2020
by Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust
The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve personal, community and societal wellbeing. Many of the issues that we work on, and the partners and groups who we work with, are deeply affected by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing a series of blogs with reflections and questions across these different aspects of wellbeing. We are interested in learning from others, so please get in touch to share your reflections on how communities, networks and organisations are responding.
Understanding and promoting work that is good for wellbeing is the central focus of the Trust’s Fulfilling Work policy programme. It is well-established that being unemployed is bad for our physical and mental health, making the UK’s record high employment in recent years highly welcome. But there is a growing body of evidence that variations in quality of work also determine the extent to which the work we do enriches our life and wellbeing. Our income, sense of purpose, social connections and personal agency are all affected by the work we do. Put simply, for wellbeing ‘having a job is good, having a good quality job is miles better.’ On this, the labour market has performed unevenly since the last recession, with persistent inequalities of opportunity; low and stagnant pay, lack of worker voice; and a growth in insecure forms of work impacting many.
For all that our recent period of record-high employment may have masked serious work quality issues for some, that time has now passed. The UK is in the midst of a severe public health and economic crisis, on the cusp of what may be the worst recession in 300 years. We are facing a host of new job quality challenges, some of which are unique to the Coronavirus crisis; many of which entrench the existing inequalities in our labour market.
These challenges start with access. Clearly being able to access work – any type of work – is the first hurdle if work is to have the potential to enhance wellbeing. The enforced, virtually overnight shutdown of whole swathes of the economy as part of UK-wide measures to contain the Coronavirus outbreak, is historically unprecedented. We have seen equally unprecedented and highly commendable efforts by the UK and devolved Governments to support workers’ pay packets and employers’ survival through this period. However, we are likely to see a surge of people not able to work, and widespread loss of security, livelihoods and earnings. It is estimated that in the coming months, 11 million people could be made either unemployed or ‘furloughed’: retained on employers’ payroll with 80% of wages paid by the state, but unable to return to work until the crisis has passed. Already, 1.8 million new claims have been made to Universal Credit and over 6 million workers furloughed under the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme.
This crisis is compounding inequalities. Detailed work by the Resolution Foundation, Learning and Work Institute, Institute for Fiscal Studies and Institute for Employment Studies, among others, has highlighted that those at greatest risk of being unable to work during this crisis are those already facing most disadvantage in the labour market. This includes workers in low-paid sectors, women, and young people. It includes the self-employed and other groups outside what is termed the ‘standard employment relationship’, who have fewer employment protections and are more easily stood down by employers in times of crisis.
For those able to continue to work, this period will drive home the wellbeing impacts of different dimensions of job quality in dramatic fashion. For key workers and those whose jobs simply cannot be done remotely, it has never been of greater importance that employers take steps to minimise health risks and support wellbeing. For those who can work from home, quality of life during this period will also greatly depend on the support and provisions made by our employers, e.g. to work remotely in a way that is manageable; to balance work and caring responsibilities; or to continue to receive decent wages during a period of sickness.
The human cost of this economic shutdown cannot be underestimated. The severity of our experiences will differ greatly. Those able to continue to work from home are overwhelmingly from the top half of the earnings distribution, another illustration of how this crisis is compounding inequalities. Yet widespread disruption to ordinary patterns of working, socialising and caring will generate new working lives for all of us for a period. This is a moment of great destabilisation. It might lead to changes that are more long-lasting than the duration of the immediate crisis, for better or for worse.
To reorient ourselves and to ensure society is positioned to mitigate the worst impacts of this crisis, calls first of all for a granular understanding of the multiple and diffuse challenges that workers face. As well as grappling with the unemployment challenge, we need to understand the job quality impacts of this crisis, and how they are falling unevenly on different workers. This will help inform decisions about where to focus policy interventions. It will also help us to identify employment practices, changed expectations, and innovations that might emerge as a benign force from this period.
On the one hand, the coming recession clearly presents a challenging economic context in which to call for improvements at work, with many likely to be grateful to have any job and many businesses facing unprecedented challenges to their survival. On the other hand, this crisis may lead to a greater awakening for many people to the efforts of many of our lowest-paid workers, such as those in nursing and social care; retail; nursing; and distribution, on which the functioning of society and the resolution of this public health crisis now depend. There is a possibility that this period may strengthen public consent for the idea that good work for everyone is essential for wellbeing and human dignity. This may channel political will towards tackling labour market inequalities.
It is too early to tell if opportunities for change might be galvanised during this period. But the Carnegie UK Trust is embarking on new research analysing changes to job quality wrought by this crisis as a starting point and evidence base. Over the coming months we will be asking what ‘good work’ looks like in the post-Coronavirus economy – and what are the mechanisms through which it can be achieved and sustained? We will share our thoughts and reflections as we carry out this analysis and we’d be pleased to hear from others with views and ideas to contribute towards this endeavour.
 Submission by Nancy Hey, Director of What Works Wellbeing to the Carnegie UK Trust-RSA Measuring Job Quality Working Group, September 2017. See https://whatworkswellbeing.org/product/job-quality-and-wellbeing/ for more information
 See for example our Work and Wellbeing – Exploring Data on Inequalities report
 See for example Felstead et al, Participation at Work: first findings from the Skills and Employment Survey 2017, https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/1309456/5_Participation_Minireport_Final.pdf
 Resolution Foundation analysis of OBR data, modelling the economic impact of three, six or twelve month Coronavirus-enforced economic shutdown, project the resulting fall in GDP in 2020 could be 10, 20 or 24 per cent, respectively. Annual falls in GDP of this magnitude have not happened in the UK for over three centuries.
 E.g. temporary or agency workers, short or zero hours contracts, casual and gig workers, self-employed and falsely classified as self-employed.