Hidden sins of economic crisis: the problem of unhappiness at work

Francis Green

When the financial crisis and recession hit Britain more than six years ago, many feared for the loss of jobs. Respectable forecasters expected unemployment to reach three million, as it had in the 1980s era of high Thatcherism.

That fate was avoided, but another serious problem has been lurking in the shadows: enhanced fears and anxieties at work, and reduced well-being.

Such fears are not presented in official statistics, so how do we know this? As social scientists here at the Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES) we can’t go on what we hear from anecdotes about this or that employer, or group of employees. Instead we use properly conducted surveys. We talked to a nationally representative sample of people in their own homes in great detail – for about an hour – about their jobs. Here is an example of what we found, in our new research using our survey data*:

  • Workers’ anxieties increased in the recession. Their fear of job loss understandably rose, with the proportion of employees fearing that they will lose their jobs and become unemployed in the ensuing year rising from 18% in 2006 to 25% in 2012.
  • But other anxieties also went up. For example, the proportion of employees who were either fairly or very anxious about being victimised by management rose from around 15% in 2000 to 19% in 2012. We followed up the 2012 survey respondents in 2014 and, among them, this anxious proportion had risen by another three percentage points.
  • There was also a marked fall in job-related well-being spanning the economic crisis. We used scales formulated by psychologist Peter Warr from Sheffield University. We found, for example, low levels on Warr’s “Contentment-Anxiety scale” in 19% of the workforce – this compares to 15% in 2006.
  • The proportion of people who were very or completely satisfied with their jobs — 51.4% in 2006 – had dropped 2.3 percentage points by 2012; then, in those we followed up, fell a further 4.4 points by 2014.
  • Reasons for the decline in work-related well-being were an acceleration in the pace of workplace change, rising job insecurity, and intensification of work effort. Cuts in wages are also implicated, and though we can’t be sure from our data, the rises in other forms of insecurity will have contributed.

Of course these statistics are only averages. They tell us about the fears and the well-being of the whole population of people in work, but many individuals will have fared a lot better, others much worse.

What does it matter, you might ask? To which I reply, it matters a great deal, because the quality of work is very important for how we fulfil our needs as individuals. Most of us spend a lot of time at work. And poor well-being, including high levels of work stress, spill out into the rest of our lives. Chance are, most readers of this blog will know someone unduly stressed or anxious at work.

A further, hidden, potential effect is that these fears and insecurities may be part of the story as to why wages collapsed in real terms as soon as the recession broke. For many years, the balance of power between employers and workers, which had allowed modest rises year on year, was nevertheless eroding with the rise of global competition and declining sway of trade unions. The weakness of workers to resist wage cuts was then revealed rather suddenly when the economic crisis broke.

Suppose the economy recovers well in the next few years. Will we return to an era of lower work anxieties and get back on track with real wages? Personally I doubt that, without a resurgence in the union movement, and/or an era of sustained high employment.

Only further empirical monitoring of job quality will reveal what’s really happening with workers’ anxieties. If official statisticians don’t think this is worth doing, it will remain down to us academics to do so. And that will only happen if we are successful in persuading hard-stretched research funders to continue supporting us.

When macroeconomic and financial policy makers make a mess of the economy, the hurt that it is caused to many people can be conveniently remote, and is often not revealed by our statisticians. The loss of well-being at work is one of those hidden sins of avoidable recessions.

*See Green, F., A. Felstead, D. Gallie and H. Inanc (forthcoming). “Job-Related Well-Being Through the Great Recession.” Journal of Happiness Studies.

Also see: Gallie, D., A. Felstead, F. Green and H. Inanc (2013). Fear At Work In Britain. London, Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies, Institute of Education.

image © iStockphoto.com / mustafahacalaki. 

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Posted in Social sciences and social policy

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