When work doesn’t pay


Any job isn’t necessarily a good job for people out of work

By Stephen Bevan, Lancaster University

There can be no doubt that the job market has been more resilient since the financial crisis than many imagined. Unemployment did not rise as far as was feared and the recovery in employment to pre-recession levels has been quicker than forecast by even the most optimistic labour economists. So, time for some self-congratulatory back-slapping among policy makers then? On the surface of things, at least, it looks like a jobs miracle, despite the belt-tightening of austerity.

Unfortunately, having studied the quality of jobs which many people in the UK are now doing, this is not entirely the case. The UK labour market is, indeed, performing well but we have a growing and potentially corrosive problem of poor quality, precarious and temporary work which threatens our productivity and competitiveness, levels of social inclusion and, ultimately, the health of the workforce.

Many will argue that this contingent work is essential if we are to have a flexible labour market and this, of course, has always been the case. But how about the effects of this kind of work on the people doing it?

My research has focused on the relationship between the kinds of contingent work that has poor psychosocial quality and the mental health of the workers doing it. And findings force us to ask, perhaps heretically, whether we are actually always better off in work.

Work and well-being

Psychosocial job quality involves the degree to which jobs promote control, autonomy, challenge, variety and task discretion. It effects the extent to which work enhances or diminishes our psychological well-being.

There’s a clear link between being engaged in “good work” and mental health. An important contribution to our understanding of this link has come from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey in Australia. It brings together a robust set of data that can be easily compared with other situations such as unemployment. The results, published by Peter Butterworth and colleagues at the Australian National University have global resonance for countries that are serious about developing an understanding of what being “better off” in work really means, beyond narrow economic definitions.

Plus? That depends on the job.
Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The received wisdom is that being out of work is a bad thing. It certainly is bad, as we know, for income. It is also bad for self-esteem, dignity, social inclusion, relationships and health. So, all other things being equal, a policy position that promotes getting people back into work is both rational and evidence-based.

But, building on this position, and especially during a period of high unemployment, the received wisdom also tells us that any job is a good job. This axiom informs current UK policy towards compulsory work experience and the “workfare” or “work-for-benefits” thinking which many politicians now favour.

Worse than unemployment

Being in poor-quality work which, perhaps, is boring, routine or represents underemployment or a poor match for the employee’s skills is widely regarded as a good way for the unemployed to remain connected to the labour market – and to keep the work habit. But Butterworth’s data contradicts this. The HILDA data shows unambiguously that the psychosocial quality of bad jobs is worse than unemployment. Butterworth looked at those moving from unemployment into employment and found that:

Those who moved into optimal jobs showed significant improvement in mental health compared to those who remained unemployed. Those respondents who moved into poor-quality jobs showed a significant worsening in their mental health compared to those who remained unemployed.

So now we have a slightly different answer to the question about the unemployed being better off in work. Yes they are, as long as they are in good-quality jobs. If they are in bad jobs, there is a perversely strong chance that they will be worse off – especially in terms of their mental health.

Again, for those who think that there should be punitive undertones to policies to get unemployed people back to work would do well to question whether the “any job is a good job” maxim is as accurate as they like to think. Moreover, we should probably question whether the revolving-door characteristics of some policies in which many people fall back out of work soon after being found a job might – in part – owe their poor performance to the damaging psychosocial quality of the work itself.

This shouldn’t stop us from straining every sinew to help people find work. But it should make us think a lot more about how the quality of jobs can affect our health and productivity. Even in a recession, the uncomfortable truth may be that “any job” may not be a good job at all.

The Conversation

Stephen Bevan, Director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness, The Work Foundation and Honorary Professor, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

11 thoughts on “When work doesn’t pay

  1. it certainly is not good when a job turns out to be temporary, while the employee was thinking it was permanent. when its only part time,16hours or less yet they are made to stop their claim.(has happened). and when getting a job makes such a mess of their housing benefits/council tax benefits only for it to make those worse still a few weeks later when the job ends. therefore landing them in arrears they probably weren’t already in before they took that job. (I know this is true as it happened to a relative of mine whose under 25 daughter lives with him and who is on jobseekers while he is on ESA WRAG,.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there’s a gap between a job ending and when you can claim from. Then there are the waiting times for the claim to be “processed” and 6 week waits are fairly typical. And the Benefits Office can delay your Jobseeker’s Allowance for up to 26 weeks if you’ve voluntarily quit without “good reason.”

      You can reopen a JSA claim online (sometimes called ‘rapid reclaim’) if you’ve had JSA in the last 26 weeks.

      Making a reclaim online should take about 10 minutes according to the gov site


      1. No, the jobcentre don’t give out helpful info. Also there’s a hardship fund that people can ask to claim when they are struggling, but that isn’t widely shared either, and I believe it’s very hard to claim.


      2. thanks Kitty.i do know about the hardship fund. but as you say no one tells them about it. plus i know if you are a young single mother its easier to claim obviously because you have kids. but a 21yr old living with her dad in a one bedroom first floor flat, so she sleeps in living room on a settee, making her back ache 24/7 after 2 years of this.possibly cant claim.its not her name on the rent book or council tax letters for one thing. she is not responsible for household finances.for another. he doesn’t get job seekers.he gets ESA WRAG. so probably isnt eligible in his own right .(i dont know this for sure. but just looking at the probabilities)


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