Low-quality work is bad for people’s health

Author: Louise Prime

People in low-quality jobs are twice as likely as those in better jobs to report that their health is not good, according to a new report* from the Health Foundation which revealed that one in three people report being in low-quality jobs. The independent charity argued that to improve population health, there needs to be a focus not just on reducing unemployment, but also on addressing the quality of work because stress has long-term health effects.

The Health Foundation said recent policy has tended to focus on getting people into work. But it analysed data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study of 40,000 people, looking beyond what it called ‘traditional indicators of job insecurity such as unemployment, self-employment or zero-hours contracts’ to explore workers’ perceptions of job quality and the implications for their health, and found that to improve health, the quality of work also needs to be addressed.

One in three (36%) UK employees reported having low-quality work, defined as a job that has two or more perceived negative aspects such as low levels of autonomy, wellbeing, security and/or satisfaction, as well as low pay. And the analysis revealed the impact of this on people’s health:

  • 17% of employees with low job security do not have good health – almost twice the proportion for all employees (11%).
  • For any individual aspect of low job quality, a higher proportion report a lack of good health – from 12% for those with low pay to 19% for those with low job satisfaction.
  • Overall, the prevalence of less than good health is twice as high for those with two or more negative job aspects (15%) compared with those with no negative job aspects (7%).

The charity also noted that stress – which can be caused by being in low-quality work – accumulates over time, leading to worse health outcomes, so it is important to take into account how long people spend in low-quality work. Because the duration for which people are exposed to stressors might be an important indicator of health outcomes, the charity said it was particularly concerned by its finding that half (51%) of people in low-quality work in 2010-11 were still in low-quality work six years later. This included those who were ‘stuck’ in low-quality work for the entire period as well as those who might have moved in and out of low-quality work. A further 27% of people who were in higher quality work in the first period entered low-quality work, or the quality of their job deteriorated.

The Health Foundation reported that some geographical areas and social groups were disproportionately affected by low-quality work. For example, more than half (55%) of those younger than 25 reported being in low-quality work, compared with about a third (33%) of those 25 and over; and Northern Ireland (42%), Wales (42%), the North East (40%), and West Midlands (40%) all had high levels of low-quality work.

The report concluded: “In recent years, unemployment has receded as a problem for the UK labour market as a whole, though it still affects some population groups disproportionately. The quality of work, however, remains a significant, widespread issue… The focus of policy should now be on the challenge low-quality work presents for health.

“In recent years, analysis of low-quality work has focused particularly on job insecurity, for example zero-hours contracts and the gig economy. It is clear from this new analysis that this focus does not reflect the breadth of the problem.”

The report’s author, Health Foundation senior analyst Adam Tinson, commented: “These findings highlight the scale and persistence of low-quality work. Our choice of occupation shapes our health directly, and underpins other factors that matter for health such as our income or social networks.

“Low-quality work is where someone feels stressed and unfulfilled, whether that’s due to pay, insecurity, a lack of autonomy or a feeling of dissatisfaction. This can harm people’s health. It’s broader than roles that are temporary or with varying hours.

“With the UK’s employment law set for review as it leaves the EU, there should be a particular focus on improving job quality in order to maintain and improve health. To boost job quality, employers should give greater consideration to job security, job design, management practices and the working environment.”

*Tinson A. What the quality of work means for our health. Health Foundation, published online 4 February 2020.