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The Employment Dosage: How Much Work is Needed for Health and Wellbeing?

Background

Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that, for most people in most jobs, paid employment generates higher levels of physical health, mental health and wellbeing than unemployment or economic inactivity. With the advent of machine learning and robotics taking over many of the jobs currently done by humans, and hastening the long-running slow trend in the shortening of the working week, the possibility of a future where there is a radical reduction in the hours of employment is now being taken more seriously. This scenario has fostered much debate among political economists and policy thinkers about the implications for earnings and earnings inequality, re-stimulating discussions of Universal Basic Income.

Yet evidence suggests that economic factors (for example, wages) are only one benefit of paid employment; there is a strong consensus that there are other social and psychological benefits of employment, and withdrawal of these (for example, unemployment) results in a deterioration of individuals’ mental health and wellbeing. The impact of mass part-time work on wellbeing has significant policy implications for government health and welfare expenditure.

There is, therefore, one important gap within the political economy of labour market literature and policy design: knowing what is the smallest amount of paid work that will provide, on average, levels of health and wellbeing characteristic of employees rather than of the unemployed. In other words, how much paid employment is needed to get some or all of the physical and mental wellbeing benefits from work?

Aims & objectives

The overall aim of this project is to investigate whether it is possible to quantify the dosage of work needed to safeguard an individual’s health and wellbeing. In other words, what is the minimum dosage of paid work that is necessary to get the psycho-social benefits of employment?

Supplementary objectives of this research project are:

  1. Analyse what is the minimum/optimum amount of time in paid work needed for good health/wellbeing in terms of hours of work per week or per year.
  2. Analyse to what extent this ‘minimum’ number of hours depends on individual variables (for example, personal resilience, personality, locus of control, age, pre-existing social support etc.).
  3. Examine whether the relationship between minimum hours of work and wellbeing is moderated by socioeconomic variables (for example, job content, psychosocial 'vitamins'/active ingredients in employment), and socio-economic context.
  4. Examine the extent to which other types of work, such as voluntary work or participation in active labour market programmes (ALMPs) can substitute for hours of conventional paid work as providers of wellbeing.

Methods

The research takes different empirical and methodological approaches to address these objectives. The quantitative component includes the analysis of three large datasets (one UK panel, one EU-wide survey and one survey with detail of the psycho-social content of jobs to examine the relationship between hours of work and wellbeing). The qualitative component is composed of in-depth interviews with people already undertaking part-time work and other atypical forms of work.

Using our existing policy networks with the policy partners the research findings will be disseminated directly back to decision makers ensuring the research has significant impacts on thinking and future policy design.

Progress

The Employment Dosage Research Project has progressed well during the last 12 months. In June a paper we published a paper in Social Science and Medicine received extensive media coverage in the UK and was picked up by news outlets around the world. This paper used data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009–2018) to look at how subjective wellbeing changes as people's hours or work change. It found that eight hours' work was sufficient to get the wellbeing benefits that paid work is known to provide. This quantitative strand of the project (WP1) is now working on a second paper, which is looking at the role job quality plays in producing mental health outcomes. This work tries to quantify the differing contributions made by job quality and job quantity.

For the qualitative strand of the project (WP3) we have been interviewing people who voluntarily work less than 30 hours a week. This has included people across a wide range of occupations and working patterns from those who only work a few days a month, to those on a standard four-day a week contract. We have also spoken to self-employed and seasonal workers. So far, we have recruited and interviewed 45 for the project and 38 of the interviews have been transcribed. Approximately 20 have been coded using NVivo with more detailed coding being done by hand. We are in the process of analysing the rich and complex data that this strand of research has produced.

The research has been presented at a variety of conferences and workshops both in the UK and internationally. We have an active presence on Twitter and are in the process of getting a website about the project online in the next few weeks.

This project is funded by Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust (CPEST). The Cambridge Political Economy Society, founded in the 1970s, aims to advance the education of the public in political economy and related matters, and to promote research in matters pertaining to political economy and to publish the useful results of such research. To this end the Society publishes the Cambridge Journal of Economics, the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society and Contributions to Political Economy. In 1985 the Society established a charitable Trust which works to further these aims by providing funding for a variety of projects. More information about the Trust and the types of funding it provides is available here.

CPEST aims to (1) to advance the education of the public in political economy and related matters, and (2) to promote research in matters pertaining to political economy and to publish the useful results of such research. CPEST funds research in political economy to include work of a theoretical, applied, interdisciplinary, history of thought or methodological nature, having a strong emphasis on realistic analysis, the development of critical perspectives, the provision and use of empirical evidence, and the construction of policy.

Journal articles

Kamerade, D., Wang, S., Brendan, B., Balderson, U. and Coutts, A. (2019) "A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?" Social, Science & Medicine. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.06.006.

Conference papers

"Hay que reducir la jornada de trabajo" (Spanish: We have to reduce the working day) plenary talk, Employment Quality Observatory, University of Chile, Dec 2018.

"Employment is good, but you only need a snack, not a banquet." Plenary talk, annual conference of the University of the Third Age, Cambridge, Jan 2019.

"'I just don’t wanna work all the time': understanding decision making in transitions to reduced hour working schedules," ESA Conference, Manchester, Aug 2019.

"A shorter working week for everyone? Possible implications for wellbeing, mental health and quality of life", SASE Annual Meeting, New York, USA.

"How much or little work is good for you? A shorter working week, well-being and mental health", ESA Conference, Manchester, Aug 2019.

"Intensificación del trabajo y bienestar de los trabajadores" (Spanish: Labour intensification and the wellbeing of workers) 6 December 2018. Faculty Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Chile, Dec 2018.

"Let’s reduce working hours! A solution to losing jobs to machine learning and robotics" Centre for Pluralist Economics, Anglia Ruskin, 6 Feb 2019.

"The future of work: quality vs quantity of paid work" Cumberland House, Windsor, March 2019.

"Future of work after automation: towards a five-day weekend society!" Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, May 2019.

"Work and recommended weekly allowances" Sutton Trust summer school, July 2019.

Contact us

11-12 Trumpington Street
Cambridge
CB2 1AG, UK

Email: cbr-fut-work@lists.cam.ac.uk

Principal investigators

Dr Brendan Burchell

Project status

Ongoing

Project dates

2018-2020

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