Working for wellbeing

August 9, 2019

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by Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

This Sunday, 11 August, marks 100 years since the death of our founder, the great Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In recognition of this historical landmark we are publishing a special blog series this week, with a new article every day, explaining how the Trust is continuing Carnegie’s legacy, 100 years since his passing. Today Gail Irvine writes about our work within our Fulfilling Work theme.

 

Paid work has long been central to our wellbeing, enabling us to provide for ourselves and our families, buy the goods and services we need to get on in life, as well as furnishing us with a sense of purpose and identity. Improvements in quality of work have been hard won in the century since our founder Andrew Carnegie built his business empire, with more and more of us able to work in safer, cleaner working conditions, and enjoy a greater degree of leisure time.

Despite many improvements though, the world of work continues to change apace and it is producing winners and losers. At the Trust, we think work should enhance wellbeing, not undermine it. However, today’s record high employment masks a number of challenges, particularly regarding low pay and insecurity. Over 4 million workers in the UK are in poverty,[1] with just one in six low earners expected to move out of low pay over the course of a decade[2]. While the majority of us are still in permanent, full-time employment, high levels of public anxiety about new forms like zero hours contracts and the ‘gig economy’ could be seen to reflect a growing and pervasive sense of worker insecurity. Against a backdrop of trends like globalisation, financialisation, urbanisation and the decline of trade unionism, such insecurity is easy to credit. The acceleration of technological change is leading to anxieties about the use of automation in the workplace, provoking arguments that we may be heading towards a ‘post-work’ future, with robots carrying out many of the jobs we humans used to do.

The future is unknown. Yet crucially we also lack insight about the changes (for good or bad) underway in today’s job market and who is most affected. Thus, understanding and promoting the concept of ‘good quality work’ is the central focus of the Trust’s Fulfilling Work workstream. We want to contribute to the debate about what government, business, and civil society can do to shape a positive present and future of work.

Measuring Good Work

  • A major piece of work for us in this theme is Measuring Good Work. We know that in public policy ‘what gets measured gets done.’ Our Measuring Job Quality Working Group set out a framework for measuring job quality in our employment statistics, so that we can debate the causes and responses to changes in pay, contract type, job security, opportunities for progression, mental and physical health at work, and a range of other crucial issues. The UK Government has committed to monitoring job quality in this way as it evaluates the success of its Industrial Strategy.
  • In a new partnership with the RSA, we are exploring the contribution of good work to solving the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle.’ What impact do issues such as pay, job security, use of skills, and relationships with line management and colleagues have on productivity at firm level? Through reviewing the evidence base, and speaking directly to employers about how they make decisions to enable good work and improve productivity, we aim to arrive at a new narrative for how the UK can pursue job quality-based productivity growth.
  • A similar debate about how public policy can support good work is underway in the Republic of Ireland, with Future Jobs Ireland signalling a new focus on promoting quality work. In partnership with TASC, we are compiling a new set of essays, exploring what ‘good future jobs’ might look like for workers in different sectors and regions of Ireland – and what policies and practical changes may be needed to achieve these.

Enabling good work

We also support a number of strategic and place-based interventions to make better quality work available to more people. High employment masks a number of regional and sectoral inequalities, as we highlight in our Work and Wellbeing data analysis.

  • Place is a critical dimension in what kind of work we can access. This is why the Trust is supporting the rollout of Living Wage Places, a pilot by the Living Wage Foundation and Poverty Alliance in Scotland, to explore how local Action Groups can be mobilised to increase the number of Living Wage employers and lift more people out of low pay in a given locality. Dundee and International House office block in Brixton were the first two Living Wage Places. A toolkit to support more places to take part in the scheme is out in the autumn.
  • The private sector is the main employer in the UK, raising the question of how the public sector might use its reach into local labour markets to enhance quality of employment. Using procurement as a lever- by linking the awarding of public sector contracts to employers who demonstrate good employment practices – is a compelling idea. Yet as our research with procurement stakeholders in the North East shows, realising the potential of ‘good work’ procurement is not straightforward. As a next step to making it happen, we are developing a practical guide to using good work procurement with stakeholders in the North East.
  • Other projects geared at tackling the material and psychological effects of insecurity include upcoming research with UCL and Operation Black Vote, analysing the complex links between work, ethnicity and mental health.

We don’t know what the future of work will hold, but we do know that in the present work is the crucible around which most of us build our lives and as such, has a fundamental impact on our wellbeing. Through the course of our strategic plan, we will continue to promote better working lives for better wellbeing. You can keep up to date with our Fulfilling Work projects here.

 

[1] UK Poverty 2018, Joseph Rowntree Foundation,  https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-2018 December 2018

[2] D’Arcy C and Finch, D, The Great Escape? Low pay and progression in the UK’s labour market, Resolution Foundation, , https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/the-great-escape-low-pay-and-progression-in-the-uks-labour-market/ October 2017