The COVID-19 pandemic has brought incredible pressure to bear on organisations and their people. In many ways, the early phase was characterised by survival mode– quite literally for those businesses that have faced closure or struggled to survive. This phase isn’t over for many, but there are also longer-term issues that organisations need to consider now if they are going to build better for the future.

In this sense, the pandemic has focused our minds and is an opportunity for employers and people professionals to re-evaluate how we work. Many of us spend a large portion of our waking hours at work and gain a lot of purpose and meaning from it, aside from a much-needed income. Work can and should be a force for good for all. This principle remains as true during and after this pandemic as it did before Covid-19 struck.  

The pandemic raises some urgent questions for many organisations about how they can strengthen their organisation’s resilience. The health, engagement and commitment of their people will be instrumental in how they achieve that, and so providing good work where people can rise to their potential is a central and not a side issue.  

The CIPD’s Good Work Index is a helpful benchmark that can help to guide an organisation’s people management practices here. Since 2018, the CIPD has been measuring job quality through our comprehensive UK Working Lives Survey. Each year, we’ve asked workers about key aspects of their work and employment. The Index covers seven dimensions of good work (pay and benefits, contracts, work-life balance, job design and the nature of work, relationships at work, employee voice and health and wellbeing), but this short article focuses on just a few of these. 

While these findings are based on UK data, the broader trends and implications should be of interest wherever you are based. 

Serious concerns about people’s mental health even pre-pandemic 

The survey for the 2020 report was run before Covid-19 but it raises some important considerations for how to foster good work now and after the pandemic.

Crucially, the survey of more than 6,000 workers found that work has made people’s wellbeing worse over the last two years: the number of people saying work has a positive impact on their mental health fell from 44% to 35%.   

A number of workers said they always or often felt exhausted (22%) or under excessive pressure (11%) at work. Of those who’ve experienced anxiety in the last year, 69% reported their job was a contributing factor. Of those who’ve experienced depression, 58% said the same was true.   

These findings highlight that employers haven’t done enough to foster healthy workplaces to date. But it also raises concerns about the further impact Covid-19 could have on people’s wellbeing, given the fear of infection is still present, and many people face a whole host of other pressures like job loss because of the pandemic and recession. 

Job quality and not just job quantity counts

We’ve had record levels of employment in the UK recently. But that’s now in jeopardy. As the Good Work Index 2020 report notes: ‘undoubtedly policy concern regarding the UK labour market will turn to the quantity of jobs as organisations shed workers at levels as severe as – if not more than – the global financial crisis.’ 

We don’t yet know what the full scale of the expected economic crisis will look like, and how many jobs will be lost. But there is a real risk that even workers who retain their jobs will experience worse working conditions as many employers try to do more with less. Our findings already show, pre-pandemic, that many workers feel under excessive pressure and/or exhausted at work. A third (32%) said their workload is too much in a normal week. We also know from other research (see CIPD 2020 health and wellbeing survey report) that levels of work-related stress are on the increase, with unmanageable workloads by far the main cause.  

While the Government is right to focus on protecting as many jobs as possible, it should also be encouraging employers to consider job quality. Our 2020 report, highlights the importance of some of the often-overlooked aspects of job quality, such as ‘job design’ and ‘relationships’, as these emerge as the most important dimensions in respect of performance behaviours. These could be given greater consideration in terms of HR and potentially Government policy says the report; for example, our findings reinforce the need to design more interesting and meaningful work as well as foster good relationships as routes to better productivity and innovation. 

The report also acknowledges that it’s ‘an unrealistic aim for every job to be equally good across all seven dimensions’, which is true. But employers have a moral duty to provide good work for people, and it also makes good business sense.  

The 2020 report findings show that happy and healthy workers are more productive workers, with those in the top wellbeing group reporting higher levels of performance than those with the worst health and wellbeing scores. They also show that people who are happy and healthy in their jobs take less time off and are less likely to leave their employer.  

This research demonstrates that those employers who focus on good work will be far better placed to build their organisation’s future strength and competitiveness going forward. Against the volatile and uncertain backdrop of the global economy, it feels more right than ever that the CIPD’s purpose is to champion better work and working lives.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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