Why we need to talk about good work

Matthew Taylor explains why now is a particularly critical time to make good work an integral part of the national agenda

Watch Matthew Taylor’s annual RSA Lecture on ‘Good Work for All’


For most of us work is one of the most important things in our life. We spend a lot of our time doing it. It’s how we support ourselves and our families. It’s often where we forge strong friendships and even meet partners.

Given how important work is, at the RSA we’re arguing that it should be good for us and good for society. Our latest research has found that 73% of people think we should do more as a country to improve the quality of jobs, so we’re not alone in this.

Over recent decades government work policy has focused primarily on getting people into jobs with, as current record employment levels attest, considerable success. Yet persistent scandals of bad working conditions, poor legal safeguards and job insecurity suggest that bad work is all too common. We need, therefore, to talk about quality of work, and not just quantity.

At the RSA we define good work as ‘fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.’ This is an aspiration that should be realistic for people at all stages of their careers, in all types of employment and at all levels. Now is a particularly critical time to make good work an integral part of the national agenda. Let me explain why:

1. The rise of in-work poverty

Of the 13.5 million people living in poverty in the UK, 55% are in working households. 7.4 million people, including 2.6 million children, are now in poverty despite being part of a working household. One in eight workers — some 3.8 million people — live in poverty. These figures are record highs and, based on recent trends, seem set to continue rising.

Source: DWP/Family Resources Survey: financial year 2014/15

The reasons for this increase are complex, yet the bottom line is that for many having a job does not guarantee a basic standard of living. The social contract whether defined in terms of ‘hard working families’ or the ‘just about managing’ is not fulfilled when for millions of people working hard does not offer a route out of poverty.

Successive governments have recognised this. Tax credits are provided to working families and the rising National Living Wage acts as a first line of defence against in-work poverty. Yet we can’t rely on these measures. The value of tax credits is declining and the Resolution Foundation has emphasised the risk of ‘bunching’ whereby large numbers of employees get stuck around the National Living Wage level with lessened scope for progression while many continue to experience poverty. Low paid work is a vital first step away from poverty but is must not be the only step available to people.

First and foremost we must offer workers a viable route to better pay and status in their workplaces. The UK’s record on such progression is weak. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, less than a third of those in work say that their job offers them significant opportunities to progress. This problem is particularly acute for low-pay workers: a Resolution Foundation longitudinal study has found that just a quarter are successful in finding consistently higher paid work over a ten year period.

“Work is now one of the ways we understand ourselves, how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away” — Joanna Biggs

Additional formal training may not always be the most suitable or effective path to progression, and the role of ‘learning on the job’ shouldn’t be discounted but whatever the right approach, organisations should consider the development and progression of those that work for them as an essential part of their responsibility as employers.

With the relationship between employment and income security loose, and potentially exacerbated by certain forms of one-sided flexible working, we need a discussion of the fundamental standards that ‘good work’ should provide. Even if there may always be some people in work and in poverty we should not make their plight worse by expecting them to work in ways which are damaging to their health and well-being.

2. Bad work = bad health and wellbeing

Far from a simple economic transaction, work has crucial knock-on effects on other areas of our lives. This is particularly true for health, both physical and mental. Quite simply, bad work is bad for you.

Research has suggested, for example, that the fear associated with being in an insecure job has more damaging health impacts than actually losing employment. Lack of surety over the next pay check is understandably stressful, producing a range of negative effects from unhealthy lifestyle choices in the short run and conditions such as higher blood pressure longer term.

It’s not just insecurity that hurts the heart though. It has also been shown that people who feel unjustly treated at work are at a greater risk of suffering a heart attack or angina. It likely comes as little surprise to many that bad bosses are particularly detrimental: the longer a person has what they describe as a ‘poorer manager’, the higher their risk of suffering a heart attack within a ten-year period.

Job insecurity and bad treatment are just two drivers of an epidemic of stress in the UK labour market. The British Social Attitudes Survey has found that in 2012 37% of workers experienced stress ‘always’ or ‘often’, compared with just 28% in 1989.

“In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it” — John Ruskin

Stress is a feature of working life shared across the working spectrum. As revealed by the British Social Attitudes Survey, those most stressed at work are managers and professionals. Perhaps most telling however is the leap in stress amongst ‘semi-routine and routine’ occupations: in 2005 just under 20% reported experiencing stress at work. By 2015 this had risen to just under 30%. As the RSA’s Anthony Painter concludes, ‘they have low paid work with high pay stress’.

Closely related is the high occurrence of mental health conditions across the workforce. In the 2016 Mental Health at Work report, some 84% reported having experienced physical, psychological or behavioural symptoms of poor mental health with work as a contributing factor. Levels this high are detrimental to both individuals and the economy at large: poor mental health has been shown as a key reason that people move out of work, or from full-time employment into temporary and part-time positions.

Source: Health and Safety Executive — Work related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain 2016

We know that most people enjoy their jobs. Work can be designed to enhance people’s health and well-being not detract from it. We know, for example, that greater autonomy, security and fair financial rewards are associated with better health and wellbeing. A recent Resolution Foundation report found that in 2015 alone a total of 350,000 people moved from employment to health-related inactivity, an unacceptably high figure that better work could help to reduce. It’s time to break the link between bad health and bad work.

3. Bad work is bad for the economy

An assumption is often made that good work and high employment figures simply aren’t compatible. Yet given that bad work is pushing people to leave employment for health reasons the opposite can be argued just as convincingly. Moreover the Labour Force Survey has found that 11.7 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2015/16. While this can’t all be laid at the door of bad work, it’s reasonable to say that bad work is not doing our economy any favours.

More broadly, bad work that offers people poor security, little scope for progression and limited autonomy is likely to also be low productivity work. It is well-known that the UK suffers from poor productivity levels when compared to all but one of its G7 counterparts. Good work driving an empowered and engaged workforce can be a big part of closing this gap.

A key driver of low productivity is a poor and declining commitment amongst employers to providing training. The think tank IPPR has found that the level of investment of UK employers in continuing vocational training for their employees is half that of the average for their European Union counterparts. Worryingly, this trend seems to be worsening: investment in training and learning per employee fell by 13.6% between 2007 and 2015.

Source: Eurostat 2014

A deficiency in training offered to managers is a particular problem. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills reported that in 2015 48% of managers had not received any training over the previous twelve months. This is a critical productivity issue: in a recent speech the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane pointed to research suggesting that a one standard deviation improvement in the quality of management raises productivity by, on average, around 10%. It’s unsurprising therefore that the new Productivity Leadership Group led by Sir Charlie Mayfield has made improving the quality of UK management a core priority.

A corollary of bad management is that too often employees don’t feel listened to or able to influence workplace decisions. Only half of employees say that their manager is good at seeking their views for instance, while just one in three managers say that they allow employees to influence decision making. In addition, employers seem increasingly unwilling to permit employees to exercise some level of control over their work. The proportion of ‘routine and semi-routine’ workers who say that they have no freedom to decide the organisation of their work increased from 42% in 2005 to 57% in 2015.

High levels of job insecurity and fear at work of job loss or reduction of status have also been shown by the Resolution Foundation to be drivers of poor productivity. A significant proportion of the British workforce experiences insecurity: while 92% of people think that job security is important, just 65% agree that they actually have this in their job. ORC International’s Global Perspectives Survey has shown that the UK lags significantly behind other countries when it comes to job security.

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey 2015

Good work provides a better option than this — for individuals, employers and the economy alike. New research from the University of Birmingham has shown that employees with higher levels of autonomy have better overall levels of wellbeing and higher levels of job satisfaction. When tallied with Warwick University research suggesting that happiness at work causes productivity to rise on average by 12%, the economic argument for more autonomy and flexibility seems clear. Additionally, 83% of people say that a steady income increases their productivity, suggesting that better job security is in employers’ interests.

Employers will need help and incentives. The increase in the number of apprenticeships offered since 2010 suggests that business and government can work in partnership to deliver skills training. The new apprenticeships levy will continue this positive trend and established the important principle of base line of employer investment. Over time the levy could be made more flexible to offer a wider range of continuing vocational education.

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work” — Aristotle

It’s doesn’t take much to recognise that a happy workforce is one that will be more committed, hard-working and easier to retain. As argued by Howard Gardner,

“if workers are trapped in settings where only profit matters, they sooner or later want to move to a setting that looks beyond the bottom line to lines that will not be crossed because it is not ethical to do so.”

Good work creates good workers — good for individuals, good for employers, good for the economy.

4. The impact of automation

Technology, particularly robotics and machine learning/artificial intelligence, is going to have huge impact on the economy and on jobs. While the precise impacts are up for debate, it’s broadly accepted that technology is set to dramatically alter the world of work at a scale unseen since the Industrial Revolution. Rather than delaying difficult conversations, it’s crucial to discuss good work now to ensure that the innovation is directed towards the economic and societal outcomes we want. It’s critical that we approach the technological transformation of work with human well-being as our foremost concern.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimate that up to a third of all jobs in the UK could be susceptible to automation by the early 2030s. While many of these jobs will be replaced by growth in other sectors, the impacts on certain sectors, income brackets and those with particular skillsets is of concern. As Jon Andrews of PwC states,

“there’s no doubt that AI and robotics will rebalance what jobs look like in the future, and that some are more susceptible than others. What’s important is making sure that the potential gains from automation are shared more widely across society and no one gets left behind.”

It seems inevitable, for example, that jobs in manufacturing will decline, and recent RSA research suggests that higher pay sectors including finance and media could also be impacted. We risk the growth of a deskilled mass of people subject to patterns of insecure work with limited legal protections and job security. As the latest Social Mobility Commission report warns,

“if current trends continue, nine million low-skilled people could be chasing four million jobs by 2022.”

Share of employers estimating that more than 30% of jobs will be automated in the next 10 years by sector

Source: RSA/YouGov Research, to be published

Concerns about progression are at the centre of the automation debate. We risk ‘hollowing out’ the labour market, as middle rung jobs are increasingly outsourced or automated. In the last decade alone the UK lost 700,000 intermediate positions; if continued, this poses questions for how those in low pay positions will improve their skills, pay and status.

“The question we ought to be worried about now, is not simply what policies need to be adopted to make life better in this technological future, but how to … determine who gets what and by what mechanism.” — Ryan Avent

There has been a tendency to underplay the importance of the relationship between technology and people in driving innovation. From the ethics of algorithms to assessing risk in automated processes it is important that we recognise the importance of human factors. Few people correctly predicted how technology would not only remove value from some aspects of the music industry but greatly increase it in others. Even fewer foresaw that last year ebook sales would decline and paper books increase. Technological determinism is not only ethically problematic — it can lead to bad investment decisions and misguided economic and social policy.

In the face of these challenges discussion about good work is essential. As the RSA’s Benedict Dellot has emphasised, the impacts of automation will in large part depend on the decisions made by employers, policymakers and others in positions of power — it is they who will decide how to shape the impact of machinery and how its benefits will be distributed. An understanding of the character and importance of good work is critical to ensuring that the benefits of technology are shared by all.

5. Bad work — with no choice or voice for workers — is simply wrong in 2017

It’s important to emphasise that at its core this is an argument predicated on values. Quite simply, bad work is simply not something that we should be willing to accept in 2017.

We have made great strides over the last half-century to improve the world of work. Health and safety have improved, overt discrimination tackled, we have a minimum wage and more workers are able to choose to work flexibly. The push for good work is the next step towards better and fairer working lives for all.

We want our jobs to provide more than simply a pay-check. A majority of employees now say that the availability of flexible working is important to them. The British Social Attitudes Survey reveals that 90% of us consider having an ‘interesting job’ as important or very important, just below the 92% of us that value ‘job security’. Conversely ‘high income’ is prioritised by just 63% of us, significantly less than those who value ‘good opportunities for advancement’, ‘helping other people’ and ‘useful to society’.

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey 2015 — Work and Wellbeing

The World Values Survey has demonstrated that since the survey began in 1981 the UK population has consistently moved towards ‘self-expression values’ emphasising participation in decision-making and valuing of autonomy. Similarly the ORC has shown that Britons increasingly associate ‘inclusion and fair treatment’ at work as critical components of being valued at work.

More profoundly a sense of respect and recognition are core human needs. When people feel devalued and insignificant it contributes to a wider perception of lost agency. Political apathy and the lure of populism has led to soul searching about the need to renew democracy and promote engagement. Just as bad work can lead to resentment and cynicism so good work can and should be a vital domain for the development of the habits and expectations of active citizenship.

“Here, you see, are two kinds of work — one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life” — William Morris

Since the dawning of civilisation philosophers, theologians and artists have understood the importance of work to human flourishing and social progress. For some, good work is a moral imperative in itself. But as this essay has shown there are also many powerful instrumental reasons why now is the time to commit to all work being fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.

This article was written with research support from Jake Thorold