by Mark Williams
3rd September 2020

In pre-COVID-19 times, there was widespread concern that the British labour market was churning out increasing numbers of low-quality jobs. The concern was great enough for the government to set out its Good Work Plan in 2018.

Largely concerned with strengthening basic regulations at the bottom of the labour market, this new industrial strategy also aimed towards ‘driving productivity and enabling more rewarding working lives’. However, what makes for a rewarding working life? And are rewarding jobs really more productive? Also, isn’t ‘Good Work’ now a lofty ideal in the context of ‘no work’ for many? This article seeks to provide some initial answers.

What is Good Work?

One issue in promoting what might be termed the ‘Good Work recovery’ is pinning down what exactly is ‘Good Work’. In our book Mapping Good Work, my co-authors and I set out to discover the answer and establish in which sort of jobs ‘Good Work’ is most likely to be found. Rather than impose what we might believe to be ‘good’ for workers, we deferred to what workers themselves tell us is good about their work by analysing decades of large-scale survey data. We find that workers report things like the ‘work itself’ being the thing that satisfies them the most, and that a job they ‘like doing’ is the most important thing they consider when looking for a new job – more so than how much it pays or how secure it is. When analysing how detailed features of jobs correlate with job satisfaction, we find that work that makes the most of our skills, involves varied tasks and affords us a great deal of control over how we do them is key. Pay turns out to be of lesser importance. In sum, Good Work is more than being paid decently in reasonably secure jobs; it is also about fulfilling our higher-order psychological needs.

The book was of course written in and based on data from pre-COVID-19 times, but drawing on decades of data covering several economic crises, we see that this basic pattern of what workers think is ‘Good Work’ does not change over time, nor does it vary a great deal by social group (e.g. by gender, age, etc.). So we have reason to believe that ‘Good Work’ defined this way will still be seen as good as it always was before.

Moving onto where ‘Good Work’ is found, we trawled through data from hundreds of occupations and find that the best jobs are generally managerial and professional such as CEOs, doctors, teachers, while the worst ones are generally routine and manual ones including supermarket cashiers, warehouse workers and cleaners. While there is a definite class divide, it would be simplistic to say this is the entire story. There are some poorly paid jobs that do not have correspondingly as poor overall job quality, such as hairdressers, beauticians and publicans (who do about average overall). Likewise, there are some highly paid ones – solicitors, software engineers and accountants – that are not consistent with as high overall job quality (who also do about average).

A good work recovery

How might the Good Work framework we developed be useful for the COVID-19 recovery? In current COVID-19 times, worrying about whether jobs are productive and rewarding may seem superfluous to the question of whether there will be any new jobs at all. Is not caring about work being sufficiently challenging, varied and autonomous a lofty ideal, especially in the context of a very likely historic economic crash? An emerging evidence base suggests that Good Work, defined in this multidimensional way, is in fact linked to better productivity.

Added to this, the figure below plots the share of jobs in the bottom fifth and top fifth of the occupational quality distribution against productivity for several hundred UK micro regions in 2017.

As can be seen, regions with higher shares of employment in the occupations with the highest satisfaction potential (e.g. HR directors, academics, managers and proprietors) tended to be more productive, while regions with higher shares in the lowest satisfaction potential occupations (e.g. sales and retail assistants, van drivers, taxi drivers) tended to be less productive.

Gross value added (GVA) and % employed in the worst and best jobs by UK micro area in 2017

Source: Author’s analysis of ONS (2018), Skills and Employment Surveys and ONS (2020) by NUTS3.

While correlation is not causation, it is suggestive that work that has greater potential for being rewarding is also work that which is generally more productive from an economic perspective—these are the sorts of jobs we should be encouraging. A ‘Good Work recovery’ and unlocking Britain’s productive potential are complementary goals.

Acknowledgements: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funding gratefully acknowledged (grant ES/S008470/2). This article is written in a personal capacity and does not reflect the opinions of the ESRC.

Mark Williams is Reader in Human Resource Management at the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London.

Mapping Good Work by Mark Williams, Ying Zhou and Min Zou is available on the Policy Press website. Pre-order here for £32.00

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