A few weeks ago, our first Working Lives Northern Ireland report was published, building on work we have been doing UK-wide over the last few years. It offers the first comprehensive snapshot of job quality in Northern Ireland, just as we emerge from the strictest lockdown measures. And while we can’t compare our findings with a previous survey, the report allows us to draw some conclusions on the underlying challenges and opportunities around job quality across the Northern Irish economy. 

The Working Lives Northern Ireland report

Working Lives Northern Ireland is built around the seven dimensions of good work conceptualised by the CIPD nearly five years ago – this Voice article summarises the key findings in each dimension. The report highlights the inequalities and trade-offs in job quality, significant differences by gender, age or caring responsibilities, and some of the key underlying factors that impact employees’ experiences of good work – primarily occupation and, by extension, income. It also draws out a few interesting differences by homeworking and key worker status, given the contrasting experiences of the last 20 months for these groups of workers.

Pay and benefits

In line with previous research, we find a correlation between life and job satisfaction and pay levels, although it is important to emphasise that well-paid jobs often also exhibit more negative job quality elements – higher workloads, more stress or poorer work-life balance. On subjective pay, we find 37% of all Northern Irish employees feel they are not getting paid appropriately, rising to 50% for those earning less than £20,000 per year.

Contracts

While sample sizes don’t allow us to analyse differences between various types of contractual agreements, we do find a link between job security and pay, with those on higher salaries reporting higher levels of job security. We also report that 12% of all employees say they would like to work more hours than they currently do, with those in the lowest occupational groups reporting the highest levels of underemployment.

Work-life balance

We find significant issues around work-life balance in Northern Ireland. Nearly a third (31%) of all employees say they find it hard to relax in their personal time because of their job, rising to 40% for those with adult caring responsibilities. Despite the increase in working from home, we find significant gaps in the availability of formal flexible working arrangements. We also see that employees who work flexibly report higher job satisfaction, are more likely to be motivated by their organisation’s purpose and have better skills development opportunities.

Job design and nature of work

Looking at work intensity, we find that 40% of all employees report their workload as too high in a normal week. Those with longer organisational tenures, key workers and those not working from home at all are more likely to report workloads that are too high. Underlining the challenges of legally mandated homeworking, we find 12% of those working fully from home say they don’t have a suitable space to do their job effectively. We also see skills and career development opportunities reported as significantly lower for those in lower-paid jobs, as well as older workers.

Relationships at work

We find better relationships with colleagues for those working from home only some of the time and those not working from home at all compared with those working fully from home. Nearly a fifth (18%) of employees told us they feel their boss would hold it against them if they made a mistake. A similar proportion (19%) believe that people in their team sometimes reject others for being different. Concerningly, over a quarter (26%) of all employees say they experienced at least one type of conflict at work, with 15% saying they experienced two or more types.

Voice and representation

A staggering fifth (21%) of employees say they have no voice channel at work at all – including one-to-one meetings with managers or team meetings. We also find that the availability of voice channels differs significantly by organisation size and, consequently, between the public and private sectors in Northern Ireland. Lastly, we also show that employees who work flexibly rate their managers significantly better than those not working flexibly, underlining the importance of good management to enabling flexible work.

Health and wellbeing

Nearly a third (31%) of employees feel their work impacts negatively on their mental health, with 28% reporting negative impacts on their physical health. Furthermore, a worrying 45% of all employees report going to work despite not being well enough to do so. This is even higher for those with adult caring responsibilities (61%), with disabilities (64%) and for key workers (52%). We also find nearly a third (31%) of employees always or often feel exhausted at work, with 28% saying they feel under excessive pressure.

To sum up

To sum up, in line with previous CIPD research across the UK and in Scotland, we see concerning findings around the impact of work on wellbeing, challenges around work-life balance, and significant job design differences. Given the large shifts in ways of working due to the pandemic, it is also worrying to see significant gaps in flexible working availability – something that employers will need to address if they are to avoid creating a two-tier workforce of those who can and can’t work from home. Furthermore, we also highlight persistent barriers for employees with caring responsibilities or those with health conditions.

These issues, however, do not have to be inevitable. We end our report with a series of conclusions and recommendations with one overarching message - all jobs have the potential to be better. Policy-makers and HR practitioners both have to play their part to improve this. Working Lives Northern Ireland provides some evidence to help them to do so.

About the author

Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser for Scotland

Marek joined the CIPD in October 2019. He leads the CIPD’s public policy work in Scotland, focusing primarily on fair work, skills and productivity. Prior to joining the CIPD, Marek spent nearly a decade working at the Scottish Parliament as a political adviser responsible for policy-making across devolved areas of public policy.

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