Quality of work in the crisis

14 March 2011
Broughton, Andrea


The report issued by the Employment Committee in November 2010 on quality of work in the EU was based on the findings of a thematic review in June 2010 which sought to exchange experiences about labour market policies intended to promote quality of work, with a focus on measures designed to maRead more

The report issued by the Employment Committee in November 2010 on quality of work in the EU was based on the findings of a thematic review in June 2010 which sought to exchange experiences about labour market policies intended to promote quality of work, with a focus on measures designed to manage the economic crisis. The report examines actions by Member States in areas such as skills development, health and safety, work–life balance, flexibility and adequate earnings.

In November 2010, the Employment Committee (EMCO) issued a report (239Kb PDF) on the quality of work in the European Union. The report was based on the findings of a thematic review held in June 2010 which aimed to examine and exchange experiences about labour market policies intended to promote quality of work with a focus on measures designed to manage the recent economic crisis.

Improving job quality is considered to be important, not just for the well-being of workers, but also to increase productivity and employment levels, and to promote social inclusion. Quality of work is based on 10 indicators communicated to the European Council meeting held in Laeken in December 2001 (European Council, 2001).

The report notes that quality of work is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that includes a broad set of elements ranging from pay, training, health and safety at work, to work organisation and reconciliation between work and family life.

It found that the crisis has affected most dimensions of quality of work, with attention switching away from quality of work to maintaining employment levels. For example, participation in lifelong learning is low and declining in many Member States. Reconciliation of work and family life remains a challenge, with many countries facing difficulties in balancing work and life due to a lack of childcare and other relevant facilities. In addition, flexible employment opportunities remain relatively limited, particularly in the case of the transition from full-time to part-time work; the main reason for working part-time is still a lack of full-time work (particularly in the case of men).

Policies to promote quality of work

Skills, lifelong learning and career development

Skills development is a major component of quality of work and is a high-profile policy issue in most Member States. Measures taken by Member States in this area include:

  • improving the quality and flexibility of the educational system;
  • improving vocational training, including tailoring it more to the needs of the labour market;
  • targeting lifelong learning measures at those with lower levels of educational attainment.

The crisis prompted a policy response in some countries; for example, the Dutch government introduced a temporary subsidy to help retrain those threatened with redundancy.

Health and safety

The main health and safety challenge is to ensure a modern and effective legislative framework designed to protect employees’ health without putting an unnecessary administrative burden on employers. In most countries, the focus is on the prevention and reduction of accidents at work, with emphasis on specific risk sectors such as construction. This is achieved either through legislation, the involvement of the social partners, or a dedicated health and safety service.

In some countries (notably the UK), the emphasis has been on employee well-being as a means of preventing absence from work or early retirement on health grounds.

Work organisation and work–life balance

Work organisation and work-life balance are other crucial elements of quality of work and in particular help women with caring responsibilities to participate fully in the labour market. Important policies here include:

  • providing high-quality and affordable childcare;
  • better matching of work and family life.

The introduction or extension of paternity leave has been a key policy issue in some Member States as part of efforts to improve work–life balance.

Adequate earnings

Ensuring that earnings are adequate is another central pillar of quality of work strategies. Reductions in income tax have had a positive result in terms of wage growth in many Member States. In the Netherlands, for example, an important aspect of the government’s approach to improving participation among women, older workers and vulnerable groups is to intensify tax incentives to make work pay. In the UK, working tax credits provide an incentive for individuals to take up work and with this promote social inclusion.


Combining flexibility and security is a way of securing the position of both the employer and the employee on the labour market. During the recent crisis, a number of Member States took action to improve flexibility and internal work organisation. For example, Bulgaria, Malta and Romania adopted national pathways to achieve better flexicurity in the labour markets. In the Czech Republic, the labour code was amended to promote more flexible forms of employment.


After giving examples of a range of measures paid for by the European Social Fund from individual Member States, the report concludes that Member States face similar challenges in terms of improving the quality of work even though there are differences between national approaches. It stresses the need for continuing focus on issues such as:

  • low participation in lifelong learning;
  • health and safety and working conditions;
  • reconciliation of work and family life (particularly in the context of an ageing population);
  • promotion of more flexible forms of employment.

The report also notes the need to revise the complex concept of quality of work.


Quality of work is closely intertwined with the direction and goals of the Europe 2020 Strategy and the European Employment Strategy. The EU’s work in this area dates back to the Lisbon Council of 2000 and the focus on quality of work over the past decade has resulted in greater awareness of its components by Member States. This has led to considerable efforts to improve and target policy in key areas such as training provision, health and safety, working conditions, and work–life balance. As noted by this report, the economic crisis has shifted the focus away from quality of work towards maintaining employment. But as the EU moves out of recession, renewed focus on quality of work issues may help to improve policy and actions in this area.


European Council, Presidency Conclusions: European Council meeting in Laeken, 14 and 15 December 2001 (137Kb PDF), SN 300/1/01 REV 1, Brussels, European Council, 2001.

Employment Committee (EMCO), Ad Hoc Group report on the 2010 thematic review (Part 2. Quality in work), 239Kb PDF), EMCO Reports Issue 6, 2010.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies (IES)




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