Good work: a Utopian dream?

By Tuva Johansson, researcher at Working Families

One may argue that the concept of good work is a utopian concept: full of privileged, Western ideas. In light of changed needs and priorities due to social and economic change in the 21st century, views on work are evolving. Our society is embracing a dual-earner model where women are working more.  Now more than ever, work is regarded as a way to fulfil needs other than economic and material ones. Workplaces are pushed to accommodate these changes. By embracing measures such as family friendliness, employers also hope to increase productivity and effectiveness, and enhance the well-being of employees. Focusing on general well-being is a way to improve people’s experience of the workplace: feelings of autonomy and fulfilment at work matter.

In recent years we have witnessed work intensification in the workplace, suggesting that employers use recessions to intensify effort levels among staff. It is questionable if this intensification is sustainable and it is not compatible with family friendliness. Other issues, relevant to the idea of good work centre on income: “in-work-poverty”, “working poor” and low-skilled, low-wage jobs. Lack of opportunities, rewards and status in low-skilled jobs and low-paid jobs is a stark problem in the UK. It is worth emphasising a debate concerning work becoming divided into two opposing groups: creative, intellectual and socially prestigious work and repetitive, undistinguished and unprofessional work. In low-skilled, low-pay businesses, deliberate cost-minimising strategies are seen as convenient and affordable and result in lower levels of human capital investment.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  found that 1.4 million low-paid jobs are in the wholesale, retail and transport sectors, 30 per cent of all low-paid jobs in the UK economy. These sectors employ a large proportion of their workforce on non-standard contracts, mostly part-time or temporary contracts, but also rising numbers of zero-hours contracts. There is also a trend in underemployment, where many people work part-time even though they would prefer full-time work.  Wages are a significant issue, too. In 2012, around 27 per cent of female and 15 per cent of male employees were paid below the UK living wage of £7.45/hr.

Nevertheless, good work is not only achieved by higher wages. On the contrary, things other than money are important. Skill utilisation, security, autonomy, discretion, working time and work intensity are key ingredients for a better work life. Choice, autonomy, flexibility and control over working hours are important for employees, in being able to juggle work-life time pressures.

A paradox in modern society is that a progressive gender culture may lead to increased stress-levels among families. It is women who work full-time that have experienced the highest rise in work intensification. The requirement to work more intensely increases the higher the qualification level of the worker.  This stress is referred to as ‘combination pressure’ – arising from satisfying work and family commitments.

Another great paradox is that people consider themselves happy even though we see increased stress levels:  it has been shown that life satisfaction and happiness do not decrease despite stress and time pressure increasing. Economic modernisation leads to more work stress but may also open up more time resources after work, which leads to more leisure time. Thus, the more leisure time the more satisfied we are, but also more time pressured.  Some discuss the term ‘event society’, a society in which people want to experience more and more.

An interesting finding is that in Sweden, one of the most gender-equal countries, parents face more ‘combination pressures’ than in the UK. Stress is considered more volatile when the demands at the work place are high and at the same time the worker has little influence over his/her working conditions.  Although Sweden is one of the countries where employees regard themselves as very stressed, Sweden also ranks very high when it comes to life-satisfaction and happiness. This paradox leads to the conclusion that modern societies and modern workplaces can develop resources that enable individuals to cope with combination pressure and enable them to live with a higher pace of life.

Attention should be given to policies reducing the forms of work organisation that sees intense and high-strain working conditions combined with low job control. For employees and businesses good work provides a working environment with more satisfaction: an environment that aims to involve and engage employees and to encourage their contribution to organisational success. Developing employees’ skills and competencies and improving employees’ reconciliation of working and non-working life are key in achieving a healthy workforce.

Employers can be enablers and good work should thus not be a utopian dream for a privileged few.


1 thought on “Good work: a Utopian dream?

  1. I saw a graph a couple of days ago, it was showing some happiness measure over different age groups and generally people were happy when young, became less happy as they got older, working age adults were the bottom of the curve and then retired adults were happier again. Although the context I saw it was to mock russia (where retired adults are just as miserable as working age ones).

    It made me think about how happy I am since I quit my job to become a (trainee because I’m not yet married to my partner) housewife, feeling finally a free autonomous human being existing for myself.

    I think people are just lying to themselves if they say they are happy to work all the time. They think they ought to be so they try and make themselves feel it. I said I was happy working, but wow I feel so so much better now I am not.

    Work sucks, literally, it sucks the life out of you and transforms it into someone else’s bank balance. Why would anyone work more than they absolutely had to in order to remain fed, sheltered etc. Only chumps would, tricked into thinking it’s some kind of moral imperative. Purpose of work is survival not to feel morally superior to the unemployed.

    So so happy to be “economically inactive”.

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