Work

About Work

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Whether we have a job or not is the third biggest factor associated with our wellbeing, after our mental and physical health and our personal relationships.  

Our work on this topic has focussed on:

Being out of work damages wellbeing for everyone, regardless of age, gender, location, ethnicity, level of education. The effect is as big as bereavement. We do not adapt to unemployment and the effects can worsen with time.

But beyond employment, the quality of our jobs matters for our wellbeing. Life satisfaction peaks at 23 and 68 and is at its lowest during working life.  Improving wellbeing at work looks to be possible both by direct and indirect approaches. By quality, we’re not talking about any specific type of job, but the conditions that help us thrive in the workplace. So, what does a good job look like?

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What does a ‘good job’ look like?

The evidence highlights the following characteristics:

  1. Control over our job
  2. Clarity of what is expected of us
  3. Variety in what we do
  4. Positive relationships with managers, co-workers and customers
  5. Belief that our workplace and pay are fair
  6. A sense of personal purpose and of our wider value to others
  7. Opportunities to use and develop our skills
  8. A safe and pleasant working environment
  9. Supportive supervision
  10. A sense of job security and clear career prospects
  11. Good work/life balance

A supportive and effective workplace appears to be key for employee wellbeing. For example, one review found that training leaders to be effective and supportive can enhance the wellbeing of both leaders and employees. Additionally, training staff in the skills they need to make their own jobs better may have positive effects on wellbeing. 

Unemployment

Some characteristics can increase the negative effects of unemployment: 

  • being unemployed for over a year
  • being a man (although men’s wellbeing increases more once reemployed)  
  • being a young person. 

Unemployment is also associated with inequality in life satisfaction, though the effect is less consistent.

When it comes to gender and unemployment, on average, losing a job affects the wellbeing of men more than women. Analysis also finds that women who hold ‘traditional values’ about women’s roles are less likely to experience negative wellbeing impacts if they lose a job. On the other hand, those with ‘egalitarian’, or modern, values do suffer in wellbeing terms. Both these findings make intuitive sense. Those who do not see work as key to their identity and purpose suffer less wellbeing damage when losing their job than others.

Progression at work

Promotions can impact our mental health, although the evidence is low quality: there is mixed evidence of the immediate impact, and some evidence to suggest that long-term there can be a negative impact on mental health.

Retirement

Having a bridging job can help to protect wellbeing during the transition to retirement. Also, the job type and our personal circumstances can impact how retirement affects our wellbeing. If we see our jobs as ‘prestigious, successful careers’, it can be hard to make adjustments to our new situation.

External resource

  • International Labour Organization
  • OECD employment data
  • RSE – Future Work Centre
  • CIPD Knowledge Hub
  • ONS employment data