Working Lives Scotland 2021

By Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser

The first Working Lives Scotland report was released three months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was already apparent that we were experiencing an unprecedented event, one year on we are still only beginning to understand the full impact on our personal and working lives, families and communities. The global health crisis has developed into a global economic crisis, with profound challenges for employers as well as employees.

Our second Working Lives Scotland report gives us an opportunity to look at some of the changes across all aspects of job quality. One of the most striking findings in this year’s report – and the UK-wide Good Work Index – is that there has been relatively little change across most of our headline indicators, although we do draw out differences between groups of employees throughout. We think there are three key factors for the headline stability. Firstly, the scale of the government’s intervention has meant that the job market has so far remained in a relatively steady state. Secondly, while we have seen shifts in where we work, the underlying ways of working and job design has not changed dramatically, meaning overall job quality remained steady. Finally, we may also be witnessing the impact of good people management on job quality, with the measures put in place mitigating the negative impact of the pandemic. 

In this blog, we break down some of the most interesting findings by the five fair work dimensions. Some of our key overall findings include: 

  • Differences across fair work dimensions we found in 2020 remain in 2021, suggesting that many job quality barriers (and good practice) are resilient to change.
  • Employee preferences point to a hybrid future for those who can work from home, with homeworking some of the time the most popular option. However, almost half (43%) of all employees work in jobs that can’t be done from home.
  • Key workers report worse job quality across most indicators, although – perhaps understandably – score better on questions around meaningful work.
  • Furloughed workers also generally report worse job quality, especially if furloughed full-time.
  • Homeworkers have seen some benefits, but also drawbacks, with those fully working from home reporting worse work-life balance and higher workloads.


We have seen an increased focus on health and wellbeing by employers during the pandemic, something that is likely reflected in the relative stability of the indicators in our survey. That being said, we still see around a quarter of all employees tell us their job impacts negatively on their mental and/or physical health – with worse findings for furloughed and fully remote workers. We also see higher levels of presenteeism for carers and key workers. And while, encouragingly, homeworkers report better relationships at work – in particular with their managers – their work-life balance is worse than for those who don’t work from home at all. 

  • 56% of employees experienced a health-related physical condition, while 54% reported experiencing a non-physical one.
  • 26% of employees feel their work impacts negatively on their mental health, with 25% reporting negative impacts on their physical health.
  • The most common reported health conditions (sleep problems, musculoskeletal issues and anxiety) are more prevalent in female employees.
  • Carers and key workers are more likely to report going to work despite not being well enough to do so.
  • Paradoxically, home workers report better relationships at work, in particular with line managers. Those working fully from home, however, report poorer work-life balance.


The issue of job security is of increased importance during an economic crisis. While our survey does not capture those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, we have, understandably, recorded more concern over job security for workers who have been furloughed, compared to those who continued in employment. The differences in pay we see between key and non-key workers also highlight that there is some way to go if we want to match the rhetoric of gratitude and support with action. 

  • Workers who have been put on furlough understandably report lower levels of job security.
  • There is correlation between life and job satisfaction and pay levels.
  • We also see a link between job security and pay, with those on higher salaries reporting higher levels of job security.
  • The median pay of key workers is significantly lower than for non-key workers.
  • 60% of employees are reporting some levels of overwork, with 11% of employees saying they work 15+ more hours than they would like to.


While the last 15 months saw a big shift towards remote working, it needs to be emphasised that this is only one type of flexible working arrangement. Out of those who have worked from home some of the time due to the pandemic, we see that their preferences point to a hybrid future, with partly working from home the most popular way of working. Communication between employees and employers will be paramount. We also continue to see concerning gaps in skills and career development opportunities, something that both employers and policy-makers need to address. 

  • Less than a third (31%) of employees believe their job offers good prospects for career advancement, while 51% believe their job offers good opportunities to develop their skills.
  • Only 8% of furloughed employees undertook training during their time on furlough.
  • Despite a rise in homeworking, significant gaps remain in the availability of flexible working arrangements.
  • Over half (59%) of all employees report good informal flexibility in their jobs.
  • We find greater job satisfaction, enthusiasm and skills development opportunities among those working flexibly.


We continue to see significant differences across this fair work dimension, especially around issues like job autonomy, where higher occupational classes perform much better. We have also seen differences in workloads, which are reported higher by remote workers as well as key workers. Finally, we also see some gaps in job resources, with 13% of those working fully from home saying they don't have a suitable space and 12% saying they don't have suitable broadband to do their job effectively. 

  • 34% of all employees report their workload as too high in a normal week. Key workers and those working from home all the time are more likely to report workloads that are too high.
  • 13% of those working fully from home say they don't have a suitable space and 12% say they don't have suitable broadband to do their job effectively.
  • Employees in better paid jobs, management roles and those working flexibly report higher levels of job autonomy.
  • Key workers are significantly more likely to feel their jobs are meaningful.
  • Over a quarter of employees (28%) feel they are over-qualified for their job, rising to over half (51%) of those in the lowest paid jobs. 

Effective voice 

It is encouraging to see that we have not seen an immediate drop in voice indicators as a result of the pandemic. In fact, there have been improvements for some workers – especially those working for large organisations, presumably as these increase their focus on communication with remote workers. That being said, the concerning gaps we have seen last year remain, with almost a fifth of all employees not having access to any voice channel at all. 

  • 19% of employees say they have no voice channel at work at all.
  • One-to-one meetings with managers and team meetings are the most commonly-reported forms of voice, available to 59% and 49% of employees respectively.
  • Employee ratings of their managers as well as representatives in relation to voice have slightly improved compared to last year.
  • The availability of voice channels differs significantly by organisation size and, consequently, between the public and private sectors in Scotland.
  • We see a significant improvement in managerial openness among large organisations and public sector employees.

Working Lives Scotland 2021 is the first snapshot of job quality across all five fair work dimensions during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, its findings should be of interest to policy-makers and HR practitioners alike, as they look towards a post-pandemic future of the workplace.

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