Sustainable work

21 September 2017

Sustainable work means achieving living and working conditions that support people in engaging and remaining in work throughout an extended working life.  Work must be transformed to eliminate the factors that discourage or hinder workers from staying in or entering the workforce. But also individual circumstances have to be taken into account. Availability for work differs and is likely to change over the life course. The challenge is to match the needs and abilities of the individual with the quality of jobs on offer.

Demographic ageing is one of the driving forces behind the Europe 2020 employment target to increase labour force participation across the EU. With the numbers of retirees rising and the working population declining, social protection systems could become threatened. For social support systems to remain viable as Europe’s population ages, more people need to work and stay in work for longer over their lifetimes.

These goals will be achieved only if workers are in good health, qualified and employable, and motivated to stay in work for longer. Wider societal supports must be in place to enable people to access work and have a good work–life balance. Job quality and the work environment are key components of allowing all workers to remain longer in the labour market. But the interaction between these components and individual circumstances, such as health and motivation to continue working, is also a major factor and needs to be better understood.

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 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.

Eurofound’s work

The multifaceted nature of the sustainable work concept means that it intersects with many key areas of Eurofound’s work. Eurofound has created a framework for understanding the concept of sustainable work, which is used as a reference point for a range of research projects on this topic.

Enabling sustainable work

A recent study analysed national policies and strategies that help to achieve sustainable work throughout the life course. Research also investigated how partial retirement schemes can contribute to sustainable and adequate pension systems by enabling and motivating people to extend their working lives. It also examined how mid-career reviews can help workers to explore their options to remain in work until a later retirement age. 

Survey data

Eurofound’s sixth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) describes the current state of key working conditions across the EU Member States. Previously, Eurofound examined the working conditions that make work sustainable over a lifetime and are therefore likely to promote a longer working life: good working conditions, physical and mental well-being, work–life balance.

Good quality of work is a precondition for well-being and motivation and, as such, is a cornerstone of sustainable work. As part of the EWCS, Eurofound has developed indices for measuring different dimensions of job quality. Eurofound has also researched several components of job quality and the work environment separately, including employee involvement in decision-making.

Health at work

The rise in psychosocial risks to employee well-being motivated a joint report with sister agency EU-OSHA in 2014 on psychosocial risks in European workplaces. Eurofound has also looked more specifically at physical and psychological violence at work, as well as the relationship between health and well-being and work.

The Agency has also produced studies examining the employment situations of young people with health problems and disabilities and people with chronic diseases. These studies also describe policies and measures public authorities have taken aimed at integrating these groups into the labour market.

Work–life balance

Eurofound has addressed the issue of broadening labour force participation on many fronts. Research on working time and work–life balance describes prevailing working time patterns, demonstrating the degree of flexibility available to workers in reconciling the demands of work and private life. This topic is particularly relevant to policymaking on increasing participation of women in the workforce.

Older workers

The Agency also teamed up with three other EU Agencies in looking at age-friendly work in Europe.  Another recent study documents initiatives by governments and social partners to retain older workers in the labour market. 

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