Is work getting worse, and worse for the workers?

Newsletter articles

24 Nov 2015

Employment Studies issue 22

Nigel Meager, IES Director

Nigel MeagerSeveral articles in this issue are linked to an underlying theme of work, health and wellbeing. Indeed, the related questions of how work affects people’s wellbeing (for good or ill) and of how people’s wellbeing affects their performance at work, are of growing interest to both policymakers and employers and have been an increasing part of the Institute’s work portfolio for several years.

A bit of cursory Googling of public debate and media coverage of these topics reveals a somewhat pessimistic and sometimes sensationalist tone. It seems to be almost received wisdom that job quality is deteriorating everywhere and that work is becoming harder and more intensive, with people subject to ever-longer working hours and working with less autonomy and discretion. Further, it is often implied that, linked to all this, there is an increasingly negative impact of work on wellbeing and health, with commentators in the HR and popular press highlighting an ‘epidemic’ of workplace stress1.

While there are serious and important concerns raised in these kinds of discussion, the evidence suggests a less clear-cut, more nuanced picture.

For a start, we’re not working longer hours: average working time in the UK has been falling for decades and continues to fall, and the UK does not stand out (again in terms of averages) as a long-hours working culture in international comparisons. Of course, averages conceal much variation, and where the UK does differ is in the wide and unequal distribution of working hours (with high rates of both very long and very short hours– but even here the proportion working long hours has been steadily coming down over time).

Similarly, no-one would minimise the potential damage of workplace stress, and IES research over the years has evaluated HR management practices which can identify and mitigate this. However, sober official statistics do not justify some of the more alarmist commentary. If anything, things seem to have improved somewhat over time: the Health and Safety Executive’s most recent report2 notes that “During the 1990s, there was a considerable rise in the number of people in the UK workforce reporting the experience of work-related stress. Since 2001/02 there has been in general a flat trend albeit at a significantly lower rate than that seen in the 1990s” (my emphasis).

Turning to the broader, related question of job quality and whether it’s getting worse, a new book3 brings together a set of studies on this theme using a longitudinal data source (the Skills and Employment Surveys – SES)4 going back to the mid-80s (shameless self-promotion alert: I have a chapter in the book). The book contains too much to summarise adequately here, but again it tells a more nuanced (and interesting) story than might be expected. Thus, widespread perceptions of the end of ‘a job for life’ and the growth of insecurity and the so-called ‘precariat’ are not confirmed by these data: indeed the SES data suggest that perceptions of job insecurity fell in the 1990s and early 2000s (although unsurprisingly there was an increase following the recent financial crisis). Labour Force Survey data5 reinforce this picture, showing that overall job stability has been largely stable, or even increasing on some measures. Similarly, the SES shows that the physical environment of work has improved over time, with fewer people working in harsh or unsafe conditions, and that the overall skill level of jobs has increased, as has the ‘quality of working time’ (with fewer people working extremely long hours and many more receiving paid holidays). The findings on task discretion – the extent to which individuals have autonomy over their work activities – are more mixed: this declined throughout the 1990s, and has been broadly stable since 2000, but has not recovered to its level of the early 90s. The only indicator of job quality which appears to have moved in an unambiguously negative direction is work intensity, which rose in the 1990s, flattened off somewhat after 2000 and then rose again.

Overall, the evidence does not support the notion that working life is steadily getting worse – on some indicators it is, but on many it’s getting better, and on others there’s no clear trend. What does emerge strongly from the SES book and other recent research is that job quality is very unequally distributed between social classes, between men and women, between people of different ages and between people in different types and levels of jobs, and where we have comparative data these inequalities tend to be greater in the UK than in many other economies. The debate on inequality at work in the UK currently focuses on pay inequality, and policies to reduce pay gaps. As the authors of the SES book imply, there may be a case for more policy emphasis on 'the inequality of job quality'.


  1. Two recent examples: and
  3. Felstead A, Gallie D, Green F (eds) (2015) Unequal Britain at Work, Oxford University Press, Oxford
  4. Felstead A, Gallie D, Green F (eds) (2015) Unequal Britain at Work, Oxford University Press, Oxford
  5. Gregg and Gardner (2015):