Precarious work and mental wellbeing - a lurking COVID-19 threat?

Blog posts

28 Apr 2020

Julie Vanderleyden, Research Officer
Stephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development 

Julie V

Stephen Bevan

Nobody is talking about the ‘jobs miracle’ right now. The labour market consequences of COVID-19 are predicted to be bad across the developed world and, as we have seen in previous recessions, recovery in both the quantity and quality of some jobs is likely to be sluggish. Another lesson from the last recession is that many employers prefer to re-employ people on precarious contracts and it is likely that we see another ‘spike’ in contingent labour as economies slowly recover. So, what lessons can employers and policymakers learn from recent history and how can we avoid the recovery being characterised by declining mental health and widening inequalities in employment opportunities?

Earlier this year the Institute for Health Equity released an update of the famous Marmot review. It looked at recent data on the social determinants of health, including the quality of work. Despite improvements in many aspects of labour market performance across most of the EU since 2009, the debate about the quality of work intensified. Big questions remain, for example, about whether the pervasive use of technology leads to higher productivity or greater work intensification and whether we are any closer to improving diversity and inclusiveness in modern workplaces or whether further progress in reducing inequalities can be made.  

Perhaps two of the most persistent questions, however, concern the growth of so-called ‘precarious’ work and the challenges of declining wellbeing in the workforce. Most importantly there is concern that precarious work may, in some cases, be contributing to the decline in wellbeing. So is there any evidence of this link and, if so, how can it be mitigated – especially given the post-pandemic challenges we face?

Even before the crisis, one in six EU citizens had depression or anxiety but only a quarter of them received any treatment. The direct and indirect costs of mental illness amounted to over €600bn a year, or in excess of 4 per cent of GDP. At the same time, 2.3 per cent of EU workers were in precarious jobs where their contracts were of less than three months duration. This figure, however, masked a much larger number who were in ‘non-standard’ employment contracts which also have significant ‘contingent’ or precarious components.

At a conference in the COVID-19 ‘hotspot’ of Bergamo, Italy only last November, organised by ADAPT, we were asked to present the results of our analysis of the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) through which we were able to explore the links between the employment arrangements of almost 27,000 EU employees to their mental wellbeing. We believe that the results contain strong messages for employers and policy makers alike. They have taken on a special significance as we try to plan ahead for the post-pandemic labour market.

The EWCS data allowed us to cluster employees into five groups where employment arrangements were distinctively different in terms of various features related to employment stability, monetary and non-monetary rewards, working time arrangements and employment relations indicators such as ‘voice’ and collective organisation, amongst others.

The largest group of employees (35 per cent) were found in the ‘Standard Employment Relationship’ [SER]; this type of job displays high levels of employment and income stability, predictable working hours and work schedules, regularity of working time, access to training opportunities and a voice on issues such as safety, and access to consultation on workplace issues.  The second group of jobs (21 per cent) was labelled ‘Instrumental’ because, despite having moderately high levels of stability and predictability, they had little or no access to workplace consultation or representation. The third job type (12 per cent) was called the ‘Portfolio’ group because it combined high amounts of stability and control with excessive and unpredictable working hours. The fourth group (20 per cent) was labelled ‘Precarious Unsustainable’ because their employment status was considerably less stable and predictable, they had little access to representation or training, though could have access to additional pay if their hours increased.

Finally, the ‘Precarious Intensive’ group (12 per cent) included workers whose jobs had high levels of instability and unpredictability of hours, with little control in the hands of the employee in terms of working schedule, and where extra work often went unpaid. Each of the job types could be linked to specific segments of the workforce – in terms of both demographics and sector. For instance, SER-like jobs were more likely amongst men. It may be no surprise that the precarious unsustainable job type was dominated by women as is featured part-time work.

Having grouped the 27,000 employees into these clusters, we were then able to compare their scores on the World Health Organisation (WHO-5) Wellbeing Index, an internationally validated tool which measures mental wellbeing. This enabled us to examine whether there was an association between employees’ employment arrangements and their mental wellbeing, whilst also bringing other explanatory elements at the country-level. Good mental wellbeing amongst workers is paramount, not only for employee performance and reducing the levels of absenteeism, but it also reduces the number of accidents at the workplace and increases productivity levels.

So what did our analysis show? The first thing to point out is that there is significant variation in mental wellbeing between employees across EU member states regardless of their employment arrangements, with the UK having the lowest scores generally. Second, we found that – even controlling for confounding factors such as size and sector of employer, education level, sex and age of the employee and intrinsic job characteristics (physical demands, work intensity, autonomy etc) – employees in each of our clusters reported significantly different mental wellbeing outcomes. The graph below presents a summary of the WHO-5 scores for each group (the lower the score, the better the mental wellbeing).

Source: Vanderleyden, 2019

The data shows that the employees in the ‘precarious intensive’ group report the worst mental wellbeing outcomes as measured by the WHO-5 index and those in the ‘SER’ job have the most positive scores. These results shows support for the hypothesis that the more insecure features a job has (exemplified by the ‘precarious intensive’ group) the more likely an employee is to be experiencing poor mental wellbeing.

It is important to point out that this data conceals some important differences between countries. Crucially, our analysis suggests that the association between employment arrangements and mental wellbeing is not uniform and is by no means fixed. In some countries, the health disparity amongst the various employment arrangements becomes smaller, while in others it is even more amplified. The implication of this is that there remains considerable capacity to shape and influence the dynamics of the relationship on the part of both employers and by policy-makers.

We continue to interrogate the data and to understand the core messages it contains. Overall, we have concluded that, despite the clear impact of greater ‘precariousness’ on mental wellbeing which we have uncovered, both employers and policy-makers may have more influence over the way employment arrangements affect wellbeing. This means that measures to get people back to work after the COVID-19 crisis, any moves towards greater labour market deregulation and promoting flexibility which result in widespread and sustained precariousness need to take full account of the risks of doing further harm to the wellbeing of a workforce which will already have had its stock of psychological resilience depleted by the events of the last few months.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.