Workers in Britain are working harder and have less say, but are less anxious about losing their job or having their job changed in some way, according to the findings from the latest Skills and Employment Survey.

By Professors Alan Felstead and Francis Green

The quality of jobs has become a hot topic among UK policymakers over the last 18 months. This has been triggered by the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, which called on government to report annually on the quality of work in the UK, the government's commitment to promote and create better quality jobs, and the centrality of good work to the government's Industrial Strategy.

In the devolved administrations (as well as in some local authorities) interest in job quality has also grown. In Wales, for example, the First Minister announced in 2017 that he wanted 'to make Wales a fair work nation', and in July 2018 a Fair Work Commission was set up to help make this happen. In Scotland, the Fair Work Convention was established in 2015 and fair work has been a central part of the Scottish Government's economic strategy for a number of years.

The study of job quality has a long history among sociologists, economists and psychologists. In recent decades, the European Commission, OECD and the International Labour Organisation have all debated the question. It is now widely accepted that good jobs have objective features which have the potential to enhance workers' wellbeing, while bad jobs constitute health risks. It is also agreed that there are many dimensions to it, including wages, job prospects, the quality of working time and intrinsic aspects of the work itself. However, there is no agreed standardised, single index of job quality or its dimensions.

A recent survey of workers supported by the ESRC and others sheds new light on some of the more important job quality dimensions and how they have changed. The Skills and Employment Survey 2017 (SES2017) is a nationally representative sample survey of individuals in employment aged 20-65 years old in Britain. A total of 3,306 individuals took part. They were interviewed in their own homes for around one hour. The 2017 survey is the seventh in a series which began in 1986.

The latest results show that the quality of jobs in the UK is worsening in more respects than it is improving. It shows that workers are working harder and have less say, but are less anxious about losing their job or having their job changed in some way. Almost a half (46%) of workers in 2017 strongly agreed that their job requires them to work very hard compared to just a third (32%) of workers in 1992. School teachers in state schools top the list. A remarkable 92% of teachers strongly agreed that their job requires them to work very hard, up from 82% in 2012.

In the five years since 2012, the proportion who said that they had a great deal influence over what tasks they do fell by three percentage points, and there was a five percentage point drop in the influence they had over how to do the tasks. Over the longer term the drops have been even greater – since 1992 the scope to decide what tasks to do has fallen by 13 percentage points, and discretion over how to execute these tasks has fallen by 18 points. Other forms of participation at work have also fallen. Consultative meetings and problem-solving groups declined between 2012 and 2017, falling by eight and two percentage points respectively.

These trends are not simply of academic interest. Quite the contrary, they have significant implications for economic performance and hence for the wellbeing of us all. Efficiencyenhancing ideas, for example, are more frequently offered and acted upon in organisations where employee involvement is high. Such employers allow employees more autonomy to decide how to do their jobs, are more supportive of those they manage, give employees more opportunity to express their views, and carry out appraisals which affect employees’ earnings and/or training opportunities. Despite these benefits, employee involvement has become a less prevalent feature of British workplaces over the last decade. This comes at a time when productivity growth has been sluggish and the economy would have benefited from greater employee involvement most.

To make matters worse, high work intensity and limited job control can be a toxic combination resulting in ‘high strain’ jobs which can produce high levels of work-related stress. Worryingly, the survey finds that high strain jobs have become more prevalent. For women, the proportion rose by five percentage points between 2012 and 2017, leaving one in five women at an elevated risk of stress. For men, the jump of four percentage points, up to 15% of jobs, took place between 2006 and 2012. Among school-teachers, 28% were in high strain jobs, and 72% reported that they always or often came home from work exhausted.

The results are positive in one respect – insecurity levels have fallen. Less than one in ten (9%) workers in Britain in 2017 reported that they had a better than evens chance of losing their job in the next 12 months. This is half the proportion (18%) of workers who made a similar assessment in 2012 – falling from its highest point in the series to its lowest point. The difficulty of getting an equivalent replacement job more or less mirrored this pattern with 17% of workers reporting in 2017 that it would be very difficult to find as good a job as the current one. This exceeds by three percentage points the other low point in the series recorded in 2001. Anxiety about changes to the job has also fallen dramatically. For example, in 2012, 37% of employees were anxious about receiving a pay cut, but by 2017 this had fallen to 28%.

Yet insecurity may have taken a different form. Based on the 2017 survey, we estimate that 1.7 million workers are very anxious that their hours of work might be unexpectedly cut, raised or rescheduled. This group is several times larger than those working on Zero Hours Contracts which have received much attention. Those working insecure hours also report higher levels of work intensity, lower levels of pay, and greater exposure to a range of other fears, anxieties and worries than those whose hours of work are more secure.

Given the increased policy interest in monitoring features of good (and bad) work, evidence from the most recent Skills and Employment Survey should be of particular interest and value to the UK government, the devolved administrations and local authorities. We also hope that, in seeking to deepen the evidence base, the instruments developed and supported by this ESRC survey can be used in future national data collection exercises.