Towards ‘better jobs’: Eurofound’s approach to measuring the quality of work

Better job quality and working conditions are seen as preconditions for achieving the employment objective set by Europe’s growth strategy, Europe 2020 – 75% employment participation by 2020. The ‘Agenda for new skills and jobs’, one of Europe 2020’s flagship initiatives, stresses the link between high quality of work and a high level of participation in employment.

Eurofound has addressed the quality of work and employment in its research. Different approaches have been taken in different projects according to the specific context and the questions to be addressed. How the different approaches relate to one another is explained below.  

Framework on quality of work and employment

Eurofound has carried out research on job quality for many years and, in 2002, developed an influential framework on quality of work and employment. This framework identified four complementary dimensions to promoting quality of work:

  1. ensuring career and employment security;
  2. maintaining the health and well-being of workers;
  3. developing their skills and competencies;
  4. enabling the reconciliation of working and non-working life.

These four dimensions taken together imply that job quality is ultimately the result of the combined behaviour and actions of workers, companies, social partner organisations and governments in the context of different labour markets, operating under different institutional arrangements in the Member States.

Since 2003, Eurofound's observatory on working conditions (now EurWORK) has provided regular information and analysis on quality-of-work issues based on material and data available at Member State level. The concept of job quality has guided the development of several Eurofound research projects. For example, the Attractive workplace for all project explored case studies of companies that successfully combined quality of work with strong economic performance, to the mutual benefit of both employer and employees.

Fifth European Working Conditions Survey

The 2002 analytical framework has been influential in the development of Eurofound’s longest-established survey, the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), first carried out in 1990. The development of the EWCS and the analysis of its data underpin most recent Eurofound research on quality of work. The survey has the following objectives:

  • to assess and quantify the working conditions of both employees and the self-employed consistently across Europe;
  • to analyse relationships between different aspects of working conditions;
  • to identify groups at risk and issues of concern, as well as progress;
  • to develop indicators that enable the monitoring of trends.

By providing this data and analysis, the EWCS aims to contribute to policy development in the area of quality of work in Europe.

The overview report of the fifth EWCS, conducted in 2010, maps the evolution of work since the first survey, describes inequalities in working conditions and makes the case for addressing unfavourable working conditions. The report concludes that a more focused and better integrated approach to issues related to work and quality of work may well be one of the keys for smart, inclusive and sustainable growth. (Fieldwork is taking place in 2015 for the sixth EWCS.)

Job quality indices

Job quality is the specific topic of the Trends in job quality in Europe report, which analyses EWCS data in depth to develop indices that measure job quality. Job quality is assessed at the level of the job held, independent in principle of both the personal circumstances of the worker holding it and of the wider labour market setting. Only those characteristics of work and employment that have a proven causal relationship with well-being, be it positive or negative, are included in the measurement. The report defines four indices of job quality:

  1. earnings;
  2. working time quality (which includes duration, scheduling, discretion over working time and short-term flexibility);
  3. prospects (which includes job security, career progression and contract quality);
  4. intrinsic job quality (including skills and discretion, good social environment, good physical environment and work intensity).

These indices draw on the four dimensions of job quality introduced in the original 2002 analytical framework, but combine the elements of these dimensions differently. When jobs are clustered according to the four indices, results show that 20% of jobs in Europe are low-quality jobs, which share features that pose a risk to the health and well-being of job-holders.

Health and job quality

The relationship of work to various aspects of health, including emotional and psychological well-being, is explored comprehensively in the report Health and well-being at work. Using the four indices developed for measuring job quality, the analysis indicates that intrinsic job quality and prospects have the strongest association with well-being. Furthermore, the report highlights that it is in the context of poor job quality that differences in individual and collective capacity to cope emerge. If job quality is good, individuals have high levels of well-being without exception. Large differences emerge when working conditions are of poor quality; many workers are able to compensate for the situation, but there are also high numbers of workers with worryingly low levels of well-being. The report also examines work-related stress, presenteeism and absenteeism. It includes policy pointers for the promotion of well-being and prevention of health problems among workers.

Gender, age and job quality

Understanding how changes in workforce characteristics, such as ageing and increased feminisation, are related to quality of work contributes to the design of policies that address these developments. When analysing the factors that influence the quality of work of men and women, a restrictive, purely job-based approach would fail to identify and explain existing differences; additional factors need to be taken into account. Occupational gender segregation, the sex of one’s boss and the life stage of the worker all influence the differential quality of work of men and women. The analysis presented in the report Women, men and working conditions in Europe indicates that men’s monthly income is higher than women’s, with smaller gender differences on other job quality dimensions. Men have better prospects, whereas women have better intrinsic job quality and working time quality. The analysis also looks at gender differences in job quality across life stages, using the life-course profiles developed in the study Working time and work–life balance in a life course perspective.

Research published in the report Sustainable work and the ageing workforce on the work situations of older workers confirms that the indicators included in the job quality indices are relevant to the assessment of the sustainability of work across a lifetime. But, as with the gender analysis, some additional individual and labour market variables are important, such as work–life balance and employability.

Conditions and relations of employment

In Europe, most labour is performed as waged employment. The formal employment relationship has developed over time and is today characterised by substantive regulation aimed at establishing standards for wages, health and safety, working hours and protection against dismissal. Procedural regulation has institutionalised collective bargaining processes to set standards and to resolve conflicts. From the end of the 1970s, employment arrangements started to change in two directions: ‘non-standard’ or ‘atypical’ forms of employment developed, and the ‘standard model’ of the employment relationship also began to alter – although neither change necessarily affected the entire labour market.

Understanding the role of the employment relationship in shaping working conditions is the focus of the research report Quality of employment conditions and employment relations in Europe. The research examines the employment relationship and conditions of employment of workers in different labour markets, thus including elements of the wider labour market setting. It considers contract security, income and rights, working time, perceived employability, perceived job insecurity, as well as assessing the opportunity for employee representation and employee empowerment. The quality of contractual arrangements of employment, from the employee perspective, is positively and strongly associated with job control, as well as with sustainability and job satisfaction. It is strongly and negatively associated with perceived job insecurity and with exposure to physical risks. These associations confirm the role of the employment relationship in shaping working conditions.

Employee involvement at work

Employees’ contribution to decision-making in their imme­diate job or in relation to wider organisational issues is a component of job quality and also a precondition for its development. Workplace structures that enhance employee involvement would appear to be more compatible with work in a knowledge economy, which relies on more extensive use of discretionary effort on the part of employees. The report Work organisation and employee involvement in Europe found that employee involvement was associated with organisational productivity and employee well-being. It also noted that organisations with a strong human resource capacity as well as provisions for institutionalised dialogue that allow for collective consultation were more conducive to the participation of employees in decision-making.

Related research

The 2013 European Jobs Monitor report looks at recent shifts in employment at Member State and European level. Using the job (defined as an occupation in a given sector) as the unit of analysis, it describes shifts in the employment structure quantitatively, showing how many jobs were created or destroyed, and qualitatively, describing what kind of jobs these were. It uses three indicators to measure the qualitative shifts: wages, average educational attainment and non-pecuniary job quality attributes. The analysis finds that the employment structure has polarised in terms of wage structure, with growth in higher-paying jobs but destruction of jobs in occupations with moderate pay. However, this polarisation is mostly restricted to the wage structure; when jobs were classified according to educational attainment or non-pecuniary job quality attributes, structural change since 1995 has been mostly one of upgrading – growth in the better jobs and decline in the worst – in nearly all EU countries.

Comparing working conditions across sectors in Europe aims at providing an analysis of working conditions and job quality by sector. Sectoral profiles for 33 sectors have been drawn up based on in-depth analyses of the EWCS.

Occupational profiles in working conditions: Identification of groups with multiple disadvantages is an exploratory analysis aimed at understanding the role that occupations play in the development of inequalities between workers. It also seeks to contribute to a better understanding of quality-of-work issues.

The examination of trends in job quality in Europe indicates very slow progress in improving job quality over the last 15 years, as well as low convergence between Member States. It also shows variation of results across the different job quality indices within the Member States. Further factors should be considered to explain these differences in job quality, such as the different institutional frameworks. These will be addressed in the report Convergence and divergence between Member States: Improvement of working conditions over time.


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