Job quality, fair work and Scottish working lives – Marek Zemanik

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As official statistics start revealing the extent of the economic crisis upon us – GDP falling, unemployment rising, claimant count increasing – policymakers, employers and employees are all looking at how to weather the coming storm. Naturally, there will be a significant focus on limiting the damage to the economy, ensuring a swift bounce-back and protecting people’s jobs as much as possible. However, we at the CIPD believe that job quality must be a part of our recovery too.

Our organisation’s purpose is to ‘champion better work and working lives’, so it would certainly be odd if we argued otherwise. But there are good reasons for why job quality is so important. Firstly, it matters to the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole, with knock on impacts on, for example, health spending. Secondly, it is crucial for productive organisations and a strong economy. We are beginning to see research that shows a link between job quality and productivity, and issues around flexible working and work-life balance have suddenly shot up to the top of organisations’ agendas during the pandemic.

The CIPD conducts a range of research in relation to job quality, but this year is the first year we have published a dedicated report for Scotland. Working Lives Scotland analyses employment essentials, the day-to-day experienced realities of work and the impacts on people’s lives. It is written around the five fair work dimensions as conceptualised by the Fair Work Convention in Scotland: respect, security, opportunity, fulfilment and effective voice.

It analyses both objective and subjective measures as well as universal and relative aspects of work. This is important, because job quality is not static – what works for some employees will be anathema to others. Objective measures look at things that should be unbiased, for example, how much people earn or contractual arrangements. Subjective measures, on the other hand, include things that reflect opinions or feelings – meaningful work, job satisfaction or quality of relationships. In addition, we also look at measures that are universal and will improve job quality for anyone (e.g. health), but also at aspects that are relative and will differ between employees (e.g. part-time employment). To get an accurate picture of job quality we need to look at all of these in the round.

Working Lives Scotland is based on a YouGov survey conducted earlier this year, before the COVID-19 outbreak, but we already know from follow-up UK-wide research that some of the job quality indicators – especially around health and wellbeing, work-life balance or job security – have got even worse. Our hope is that these findings will help both organisations and policymakers to identify gaps and to shape the debate over public policy interventions and improved practice. There is a lot to unpick and certainly a lot to do.

The results suggest that job quality is not universal and there are trade-offs between elements of it. For example, while salary levels are a good indicator of job satisfaction, some of the better paid occupational classes identify poorer work-life balance. We also see occupations with a higher incidence of poor mental health and others with poor physical health impacts – sometimes both. We also highlight differences in job quality elements by gender, age and disability. The full report is available here, but I will try and highlight some of the key findings – and what they might mean – across each chapter.

In the Respect chapter, we reveal that almost a third of employees feel their job is negatively impacting their mental health and a quarter say the same thing about their physical health. For some reported conditions, especially the likes of depression or anxiety, the majority of employees believe their work has been a contributory factor. Additionally, over half of all employees report going to work despite not feeling well enough to do so – feeling pressure to do so from themselves rather than their colleagues or managers. We also look at the availability of flexible working arrangements for Scottish employees and find significant gaps in provision, but also in uptake. As we enter a post-pandemic world, it will be increasingly important to be creative and, crucially, realise that working from home is only one amongst many types of flexible arrangements.

The Security chapter focuses primarily on pay, benefits and contracts. We find – rather unsurprisingly – that there is good correlation between life satisfaction and pay levels as well as job security and pay levels too. The findings also identify other differences between sectors, for example showing that public sector employees are reporting higher levels of job security. Looking at the difference between hours worked and desired hours of work, almost two thirds of employees report some levels of overwork. Only around 8% of employees say they would like to work at least 5h more per week than they are right now – although that is a figure we’ll need to keep an eye on as we come out of the recession.

We also examine skills and career development opportunities. The Opportunitychapter shows that both personal and career development opportunities differ (often significantly) by gender, age, sector and occupational class. Women, for example, are much less likely to report good prospects for career advancement. We also know that caring responsibilities are still heavily gendered, so the gradual reopening of the economy and schools is likely to disproportionately negatively impact women. Evidence also suggests that employees with disabilities face unique challenges, such as higher levels of presenteeism and poorer relationships with managers.

Another important aspect of job quality is meaningful work and job design. The Fulfilment chapter finds that over a third of employees report their workload as too high in a normal week, although this does not differ considerably across occupational classes. We find, unsurprisingly, that employees in better paid jobs report higher levels of job autonomy and job complexity. We also identify a strong correlation between job satisfaction and meaningful work, with public sector employees more likely to feel they are in meaningful jobs. We also see evidence of over-qualification and skills under-utilisation, predominantly in the lower occupational classes – which can be an indication of labour market and skills development inefficiencies.

Lastly, the report highlights some interesting differences in voice channels in the Effective Voice chapter. Most importantly, we find that almost a fifth of employees have no voice channels at work at all – including one-to-ones with managers or team meetings. It shows significant differences between the public and private sectors, broadly aligned with the differences between organisational size. The data suggests that while larger employers are more likely to put in place formal voice arrangements, they perform poorly in responding to feedback.

As the public policy conversation shifts to how to return to relative normality following a period of economic recession, we need to recognise that issues like employee wellbeing, work-life balance and job security are all terms that have quickly gained new layers of meaning and importance during the pandemic. Working Lives Scotland finds gaps and identifies areas of focus for improving job quality even before the COVID-19 outbreak. We all have a role to play in ensuring the next few months are not a step backwards.

Marek Zemanik is Senior Public Policy Adviser at CIPD Scotland, the professional body for HR and people development