Working conditions and sustainable work

We need to boost motivation at work to ease Europe’s demographic headache

Motivated workers have higher levels of engagement, better health and are able to work longer. Improving motivation at work is therefore a key component in meeting the challenges of Europe’s ageing workforce and improving the EU’s long-term competitiveness on a global scale. This means that fostering motivation at work isn’t just about personal or business success, it is also about Europe’s success.

Europe’s ageing workforce has resulted in a renewed focus in both academic circles and among policy-makers on the concept of ’sustainable work’. Sustainable work is achieved when living and working conditions are such that they support people in engaging and remaining in work throughout an extended working life. Factors that discourage or hinder workers from staying in or entering the workforce therefore need to be tackled and removed.

At EU-level, concerns about the sustainability of pensions, economic growth and labour supply have triggered policy responses to support the goals of longer working lives and later retirement. The main thrust of the European Commission's active ageing policy is on helping people to stay in charge of their own lives for as long as possible as they age and, where possible, to contribute to the economy and to society.

These goals will only be achieved if workers are in good health, qualified and employable, and particularly if they are motivated at work and motivated to stay in work for longer. Job quality and the work environment are therefore key overall components in allowing workers to remain longer in the labour market.

Improving working conditions to protect workers’ health is a long-standing issue and was on the agenda at the dawn of organised industrial relations. Motivation, however, has not received the same level of attention – partly due to its complexity and subjectivity. This needs to change if we are to dramatically improve work sustainability.

Money or pleasure? Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

Traditionally, two types of motivation are distinguished: Intrinsic motivation stems from personal interest, enjoyment or pleasure. The motivating force of extrinsic motivation on the other hand lies outside the worker and is directed towards external goals such as recognition, reward or money.

Motivation at work, either intrinsically driven by the content of the job or by organisational factors such as recognition of work well done, appropriate payment, career prospect or fairness, is important for employees in various regards. Motivated employees have higher levels of work engagement, a lower likelihood of their work negatively affecting their health, less days of sick leave and are generally more likely to perceive their job as sustainable. Previous research has clearly highlighted that HR practices focused at the development of employees are linked to higher motivation, work performance and employability of workers.

Figure 1. Average levels of motivation by sustainable work indicators

Source: 6th European Working Conditions Survey, weighted averages and population %.

Sustainable work is of relevance for workers of all ages, not just for the older generations. In order to stay in the workforce, it is important that employees work in a competent, motivated and healthy manner, whatever their age. Eurofound research from 2018 on burnout in the workplace placed particular emphasis on this, highlighting the long-term impacts of disengagement and stress on career prospects and ability to work.

Motivation is linked to sustainable work outcomes in all age groups. Gender also has an important role: women are still disadvantaged in the labour market, have more disruptive working lives (mainly due to child care or other care responsibilities), and are therefore more likely to have less sustainable work overall. Generally, women are less likely to see their current jobs as sustainable, and do not foresee being able to work until 65. They also, on average, report more days sick leave than men. On the other hand, they are less likely to report negative effects of work on their health, and have higher levels of overall intrinsic motivation at work.

Taking motivation seriously

It is easy to see the important role of motivation in making work sustainable, but the policies needed to boost worker motivation in work are a little more complex, and are both related to broader employment and social policy, and good workplace and managerial practice. Remaining at work as long as possible does not only depend on the quality of working conditions, but also on numerous other factors. Some, such as health, formal education and income, are more personal; but others are institutional and macro-economic such as pension regime, taxation policy, poverty rate, and the structure of employment by occupations.

In order to make work more sustainable, it is not enough for policy-makers to simply extend the statutory retirement age or introduce bonus-malus systems for companies depending on the share of their older workforce. Workplace organisation and HR practices are fundamental; particularly those featuring horizontal and vertical mobility activities, internal career prospects and opportunities for development.

The systematic measurement of motivation and wellbeing at the workplace can help to develop a blueprint for policy intervention. The sustainability of work is ultimately determined at the workplace, but policy measures can encourage best practices and eliminate work-life conflicts that ultimately drain motivation and resilience. Europe can undergo positive change in this area, we just have to be motivated to make it.

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