A crisis of wellbeing at work

posted Oct 15, 2014, 1:05 AM by Deborah Kerslake

We are witnessing a crisis of wellbeing at work. Official statistics paint a picture of a nation that is stressed, anxious, overworked and insecure. UK employees work some of the longest hours in Europe, and over half of them are worried about losing their jobs. Far from being the price we pay for a competitive economy, this is economically disastrous: sickness absence alone costs the economy an estimated £100billion a year, and longer hours are associated with worse productivity. Our relentless search for growth is not only destroying the quality of our lives: it's failing even on its own terms.

Talking about wellbeing is perhaps less fashionable now than it was in 2005, when David Cameron first declared his intention to measure 'GWB - general wellbeing'. There's a general sense that wellbeing is a luxury for good economic times, irrelevant when people are struggling to get by. But this is nonsense. Wellbeing isn't just about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens - it's about creating the conditions for people to live better lives. This should surely be at the heart of all policy, especially economic policy. After all, we care about recessions because we care about unemployment, and we care about unemployment because we care about people's wellbeing.

As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics found during our recent inquiry, a wellbeing agenda absolutely does have something to say to the single mother on a zero-hours contract, or the cleaner forced to work 60 hour weeks to earn a living wage. In fact, it has much more to offer them than business-as-usual economics. While conventional wisdom treats a job as nothing more than a means to an income, wellbeing economists know that a good job gives us far more than this: it gives us a sense of stability, a place in society, a chance to develop ourselves.

In particular, a high wellbeing economy means taking much more seriously the rising tide of insecurity afflicting UK workers - whether it's the insecurity of a zero hours contract, of poverty pay, or of perpetual boom and bust. The stress and anxiety induced by feelings of insecurity are disastrous for wellbeing. Indeed, analysis of government data by the New Economics Foundation shows that job security is the most important job-related determinant of wellbeing (bar having a job in the first place), and a far better predictor than income. And when people are asked about the features of a good job, most rank job security as 'very important' - far more than say the same about a high salary.

Estimates of the number of people on zero hours contracts vary from 622,000 to 1.4 million. Stories continue to emerge of a new underclass of casualised workers who don't know how much work they'll have from one day to the next - as Citizens Advice Scotland put it, people given "no hours, no pay, no security and no chance". But this is just the tip of an iceberg. UK employees' feelings of insecurity are on the rise, and are higher than our western European and Nordic neighbours. We have sacrificed security on the alter of 'flexibility' - but, as work-related stress continues to rise, has it really been worth it?

Added to this is the insecurity of low pay. It's a misconception that a focus on wellbeing means trying to convince the poor there's more to life than money. In fact, unsurprisingly, poverty is one of the strongest predictors of low wellbeing, although the link between income and wellbeing does become much weaker as people get better off. This means that raising the incomes of the poorest will deliver huge wellbeing dividends - but the same can't be said for the size of the economy as a whole, with no regard for how that money is distributed.

Low pay also exacerbates what John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, recently dubbed a "maldistribution of work" - with some people forced to work punishing hours just to pay the bills, and others unable to find work at all. In a high wellbeing economy, nobody should be forced to choose between feeding their family and spending time with them. Whichever way we look at it, tackling low pay must be a key priority. And, as recent months have shown only too clearly, it's far from guaranteed that fixating solely on GDP growth will deliver this.

Indeed, a focus on growth at any cost can exacerbate a third kind of insecurity: the insecurity of boom and bust. Intriguingly, some economists now think that this explains why wellbeing has flatlined since the 1970s in many developed countries, including the UK. Because we experience losses of income much more acutely than gains - and because of the devastating impact of periods of unemployment - a downturn more than wipes out any wellbeing gains from rising incomes during the boom years. From a wellbeing perspective, instability is clearly not a price worth paying for high levels of growth. In fact, very high growth rates bring an instability of their own, which has also been shown to be associated with lower wellbeing. As we heard from Lord Gus O'Donnell, all this has huge implications: "policy should aim above all at a stable rate of growth, rather than growth that (even if higher on average) includes periods of recession". Chasing an illusory boom which inevitably turns into a bust is a false economy in every sense.

Ultimately, wellbeing evidence encourages us to rethink economic success. Progress is not just about ever-rising incomes, as the obsession with GDP figures implies - particularly if the lion's share of this growth goes to the already well-off. It's about giving everyone the security and stability of a decent job with a decent wage. And it's no longer enough, if it ever was, to simply go for growth and hope that 'a rising tide will lift all boats'. Instead, we need to address head-on the things that are really holding back national wellbeing: insecurity, poverty and inequality. It's now more important than ever that we learn the lessons of the crisis and build a high wellbeing recovery.

David Lammy             

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