Working conditions and sustainable work

Job quality is pivotal in addressing today’s workplace and societal challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work. With the lifting of restrictions across the globe, we are now able to examine the many repercussions on the world of work. In particular, the unique demands of the last few years have shone a harsh spotlight on the pressures brought to bear on different jobs and on certain work environments and the stresses associated with different forms of work. The pandemic has made us reassess so many aspects of our working lives. But has it changed the way we think about job quality – its role in ensuring a good working life and, indeed, a good life in general? The European Working Conditions Telephone Survey (EWCTS), a representative survey of Europe’s workers conducted by Eurofound in 2021, provides some answers.

To begin with, we need to ask what makes a job a good job?

Pay, working conditions, autonomy, flexibility and intrinsic rewards all play a role. But the interdependencies of the various elements also count. For example, the feeling of doing something useful is important, but if workers cannot earn enough to make ends meet, they will demand better pay, as attested by the recent waves of strikes by health and care workers in Europe. Then again, high pay is no guarantee of a high-quality job. If a large salary is combined with long working hours or a level of work intensity that leaves a person too exhausted to deal with household chores or care responsibilities at the end of the working day, a well-paid job is not necessarily a good-quality job. Job quality is inherently multidimensional.

These considerations are the bedrock to the argument that job quality is determined by characteristics of work and employment that have a proven causal relationship with health and well-being. Clearly, we spend a lot of time in work, and during this time we should not come to harm.

Challenging to capture and measure job quality

While the concept of job quality is essentially quite simple – those characteristics of work that protect and promote our health and well-being ensure good job quality, while those that erode our health or well-being contribute to bad job quality – it has not always been easy to measure.

In the recent EWCTS, Eurofound uses the concept of ‘job strain’ to identify and assess lower levels of job quality that put workers’ health and well-being at risk. The underlying idea is quite intuitive: in our jobs, we are confronted by demands that require an effort on our part. Demands can be of a physical nature – like being exposed to noise or having to lift heavy items or people – or psychological – like being in emotionally disturbing situations or experiencing discrimination. They can be of a temporal nature in the case of long working hours or working at night. They include intense work, for instance when we work very fast, have tight deadlines or have emotionally demanding work. They can also be linked to insecurity in our jobs.

As workers, we also have resources at our disposal that we may benefit from: the support of colleagues or supervisors; flexible working time arrangements that make it easier to combine work and non-work commitments; autonomy in our tasks; the possibility of learning new things; opportunities to advance our careers or to use our skills; or recognition of our work.

The table below shows the six dimensions of job quality that the EWCTS distinguishes, and the seven job demands and eight job resources linked to each dimension.

Table 1: Dimensions of job quality and corresponding job demands and job resources

Dimension Job demands Job resources
Physical and social environment Physical risks Social support
Physical demands
Intimidation and discrimination
Job tasks Work intensity Task discretion and autonomy
Organisational characteristics Dependence (self-employed only) Organisational participation and workplace voice
Working time arrangements Unsocial work schedules Flexibility of working hours
Job prospects Perceptions of job insecurity Training and learning opportunities
Opportunities for career development
Intrinsic job features   Intrinsic rewards
Opportunities for self-realisation

It is the combination of negative and positive attributes that determine how good a job is. If a job has more job demands than job resources, we have labelled it a ‘strained job’, whereas a job where the available resources outnumber the demands is described as a ‘resourced job’.

Most workers in good jobs while strain highest among health workers

So, how did workers in the EU fare in 2021?

The good news is that 70% of workers were in resourced jobs. That means, however, almost one-third of workers were found to be in strained jobs. For those in extremely strained jobs, the number of demands was more than double the number of resources. This would occur, for example, when an employee was exposed to five of the possible six demands in the table above (excluding dependency as that applies to self-employed only) but has only two of the eight resources available.

Figure 1: Distribution of job quality in the EU across six categories (%)

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the context of 2021, the highest share of strained jobs was found in the health sector, which also had the highest proportion of workers in extremely strained jobs. The financial services sector had the highest share of resourced jobs.

Figure 2: Job quality index, by sector, EU 27 (%)

With over two-thirds of EU workers in resourced, good-quality jobs, can we be broadly satisfied with the way things are working?

Well, to put it bluntly, no. A labour force where one-third of its workers is in a strained job is simply not sustainable, not only for the workers themselves but also for the societies we live in.

This is clear from deeper analysis of the EWCTS, which also collected information on aspects of a good working life, including workers’ health and well-being, work–life balance, engagement at work, trust and cooperation. This allows us to analyse the link between job strain and these working life outcomes. The results are sobering. For instance, regarding well-being, workers’ scores (out of 100) are about one-third lower for those in extremely strained jobs compared with those in highly resourced jobs.

Figure 3: Job quality and workers’ scores on a well-being index

When we look at health, in terms of the build-up of health problems such as backache, headaches, and limb pain or in terms of physical and emotional exhaustion or risk of depression, the link is crystal clear: the more strained the job, the higher the share of workers reporting these negative outcomes.

Figure 4: Job quality index, by health-related indicators, EU27 (%)

Effects of job quality extend to the labour market and beyond

The implications of these insights go beyond the rather intuitive finding ‘poor job quality is bad for your health’. Job strain is also associated with lower levels of engagement at work, lower levels of trust, poorer work–life balance and weaker ability to make ends meet – the exact factors that influence workers’ willingness and ability to enter the labour market and stay in work for longer.

Figure 5: Job quality index, by ability to make ends meet, EU27 (%)

Good health, high levels of engagement, financial sustainability of work, good work–life balance and a favourable social climate support people in engaging and remaining in work throughout an extended working life. This is a requirement in the face of demographic ageing and labour shortages in many critical sectors and occupations, including health and care. The same crucial ingredients will support the workforce in meeting future challenges brought about by the twin transition to a digital, decarbonised economy.

But what is also clear is that the effects of poor job quality are not restricted to the world of work – the various combinations of these factors have ripple effects far beyond the workplace, into our family lives and our communities, reducing social capital and cohesion and threatening the very social fabric of our societies.

Many ways to achieve good jobs for everyone

There are, however, numerous routes to improving job quality. We can focus on reducing job demands, making jobs less physically and psychologically exhausting, making them more secure, and keeping work intensity in check. But there is also the option of increasing job resources, by increasing workers’ autonomy, giving workers a voice in organisational decision making or ensuring that workers get the recognition they deserve. These possibilities give decision-makers at different levels plenty of scope for taking action through legislation, through social dialogue and collective bargaining, or through company practices.

The results from the EWCTS provide us with timely and useful data on working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But critically for us today, they also illustrate the centrality of work and job quality in finding answers to a wide range of policy challenges. The survey’s findings highlight the multidimensional aspects at play and cast a critical eye on the wide-ranging implications of failure to address the issues around job quality that can spill into all areas of our lives, our families, our communities and society at large. This is clearly an urgent call to action for decision-makers to mainstream job quality in all policies designed to build and reinforce resilience in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Image © WavebreakmediaMicro/Adobe Stock

Forskning udført forud for Det Forenede Kongeriges udtræden af Den Europæiske Union den 31. januar 2020 og offentliggjort efterfølgende kan omfatte data vedrørende de 28 EU-medlemsstater. Efter denne dato tager forskningen kun højde for de 27 EU-medlemsstater (EU-28 minus Det Forenede Kongerige), medmindre andet anføres.

Part of the series

  • European Working Conditions Telephone Survey 2021

    Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) paints a wide-ranging picture of Europe at work across countries, occupations, sectors and age groups. This series consists of findings from the European Working Conditions Telephone Survey (EWCTS) 2021, an extraordinary edition conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was first carried out in 1990.

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