Study shows higher job stress and falling levels of autonomy

A new report from the Resolution Foundation think tank on work changes over the last decades highlights greater work intensity and less control as stress factors, particularly for the lower paid.

Stressed woman in office


Huge changes in the world of work over the past 30 years have led to people having a greater attachment to their work, but also rising levels of stress and falling levels of control, which has coincided with low earners losing their ‘job satisfaction premium’ over higher paid colleagues, according to new Resolution Foundation research.

Work Experiences – the latest report for The Economy 2030 Inquiry funded by the Nuffield Foundation – examines how people have experienced economic change via the jobs they do over the past 30 years, and what has driven these shifts.

Despite huge changes over the past 30 years – from the growth of female, graduate and migrant workers, to the decline of manufacturing and overhaul of HR and management practices – the report shows that employees’ overall job satisfaction levels have remained relatively stable at around 60 per cent in the 1990s and 2000s, before falling to 52 per cent immediately following the financial crisis and recovering slightly to 56 per cent by 2017-2019.

Contrary to the popular narrative that people are increasingly trapped in worthless jobs, the report finds that the proportion of employees who say their work is ‘helpful to others’ has increased (from 67 per cent in 1989 to 79 per cent in 2015). It goes on to find that more people say their job ‘offers prospects for advancement” (up from 22 to 35 per cent over the same period) and that they are ‘proud of where they work’ (up from 77 to 86 per cent between 1992 and 2017).

However, the report notes that the ‘job satisfaction premium’ that low earners used to enjoy in the early 1990s – 73 per cent reported high job satisfaction in 1991-1992, compared to 59 per cent among high-paid employees – has declined over the past three decades. Today, overall job satisfaction rates have ‘levelled down’ to just under 60 per cent per cent among both high- and low-paid employees.

This sharp deterioration in low earners’ job satisfaction levels is likely to have been driven by rising levels of work intensity and stress and falling levels of control over their work, says the Foundation, with low earners particularly affected.

The report finds that the share of employees who say they work ‘at very high speed’ for most of the time has increased from 23 to 45 per cent between 1992 and 2017 [although the number of lower earners saying the rate of workplace change is speeding up has declined], as has the proportion of employees that say they feel ‘used up at the end of the day’ (up from 20 to 29 per cent, with an even bigger increase among female workers).

Over a similar time period (1989 to 2015) stress at work has increased by a quarter (from 30 to 38 per cent), with increased computer use and work intensity being big factors.

Work Experiences also identifies a related cause of stress at work, the sharp decline in workers – particularly low earners and particularly in sectors such as transport and hospitality – having a say over the decisions that change how their work is done.

The Resolution Foundation says that policy makers must address issues for low earners beyond the minimum wage, such as the lack of control over the work they do and well being.

Krishan Shah, Researcher at the Resolution Foundation, said: “As Britain edges towards a post-pandemic economy, we need to focus more on wider measures of job satisfaction if we’re to boost workers’ well-being, as well as their pay. Low earners in particular need to have a greater say over the work they do.”

At the launch of the findings, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, said it was “really not good enough” that the Government had not progressed the Employment Bill or taken forward the proposals in his review of working practices. He stated that anyone who thinks the government is serious about helping the low paid is living in a world where hope triumphs over expectation.

He spoke about his new book, Do we have to work?, and highlighted the need for more legitimate control over our working lives, for connectedess and meaning over competition and profit and for more focus on the intrinsic merit of work and for more value to be given to jobs of the ‘heart and hand’ rather than jobs of the head, such as analytical roles.

Kelly Beaver from IPSOS Mori said women were more likely to feel spent at the end of their working day due to a combination of factors, including being more likely to be in low paid jobs and having to do the lion’s share of unpaid caring.

Energy bills

The Foundation has also called on the Government to do more to protect low-and-middle-income households from rising energy bills, saying families on Universal Credit (UC) are four times as likely as the wider population to be on pre-payment meters and therefore face higher energy bill hikes in October. The Foundation notes that 4.4 million households on UC are set to see their energy bills rise significantly in October, the same month that will see them typically lose over 5 per cent of their disposable income as the £20 a week uplift to UC comes to an end, and as the onset of winter boosts energy consumption.

The energy price cap is set to rise by £139 a year (12 per cent) to £1,277 (for a typical gas and electricity customer) a year from 1 October, but a larger increase of £153 (13 per cent) a year will affect pre-payment meter customers. Pre-payment meter customers are also overwhelmingly on variable rather than fixed rate tariffs and so will be more swiftly affected by these price rises, says the think tank.



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