CIPD Voice: Issue 8

It is commonly believed that the less regulated and more flexible UK labour market delivers high levels of employment, yet the trade-off is that the quality of work is often inferior to that enjoyed by more regulated but better protected workers in many other EU countries. Previous work published by the CIPD: Employment regulation and the labour market, had questioned those simplistic assumptions, based on comparisons from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) for 2010.

Since then the dramatic rise in zero hours contracts, concerns at the treatment of workers at Sports Direct, and conflicts over Uber drivers and the pay and condition of delivery drivers in the “gig economy” have prompted several parliamentary and government inquiries and reviews into the state of work in Britain today. However, we now have the first results from the 2015 EWCS, so we can see how Britain measures up against other major EU countries today.

These comparisons come with a health warning, however. The reported perceptions of workers in different countries might be influenced not just by actual differences in workplace experiences, but also by differences in expectations and interpretations of the questions. But with that caveat in mind, we can still draw some broad conclusions from some of the first results.

Worker perceptions of managers and trust and fairness in the workplace

Many commentators have rightly drawn attention to managerial quality in the UK and the potential impact on trust and fairness in the workplace. The ECWS has an index of managerial quality based on employee perceptions of whether mangers are respectful, give praise and recognition, help people work together, provide feedback, encourage development and are helpful. A second index on fairness and trust asks workers about how fairly they are treated, employee appreciation, conflict resolution, co-operation and trust in managers. The index scores for the UK across both measures are similar to those in Germany, France and Italy and close to the EU average.

Team working and autonomy

Much attention has been given to the low incidence of high performance work practices in UK workplaces and one measure of such practices is autonomous team-working. UK workers are more likely to say that they work in teams and more likely to say that those teams have full autonomy. To be sure, the latter is still a minority experience but whereas 20 per cent of workers reported they worked in teams with full autonomy – defined by the EWCS as the team being able to agree the division of tasks and who will head the team – in in the UK, this compares with 16 per cent in Italy, 10 per cent in France, and just 8 per cent in Germany. The share of workers who said they could change the speed, order, and nature of the tasks they were given was also either similar to or somewhat higher than in Germany, France or Italy.

Worker voice and consultation

Some commentators have been critical of the extent of worker voice and consultation in the UK and Theresa May’s Government has recently put forward proposals to increase worker influence over boardroom decisions. Surprisingly, the share of workers who said there was a trade union, works council or similar body in their organisation was similar in the UK, Germany, and Italy but significantly higher in France. UK workers were more likely also to say they had regular meetings in which they could express their views – 65 per cent compared with 60 per cent in France, 58 per cent in Germany, and just 43 per cent in Italy. UK workers were also more likely to say they had influence over decisions important to their work almost always – 54 per cent in the UK compared with just over 40 per cent in Germany, France, and Italy.

Career progression and work satisfaction

Measures of progression and satisfaction with work were mixed. UK workers were significantly more likely to say they had good prospects for career advancement, although even in the UK only half the workforce agreed this was true and nearly a third disagreed. Workers in all countries reported high levels of satisfaction with working conditions, with UK workers more likely to say they were very satisfied. Similarly high proportions in most countries said they got the recognition they deserved at work. In contrast, while most workers in most countries reported they almost always had a feeling of a job well-done and they were doing useful work, UK workers were less likely to agree with these propositions than workers in Germany, France, and Italy. The EWCS also has an “engagement” composite index based on questions such as feeling full of energy, enthusiastic about the job, time flies when working, not exhausted at end of day, and not doubting importance of work and found similar index scores for the UK, Germany, France and Italy.

Working time flexibility and pressures

Less than half the workforce has any flexibility over hours, and only 14 per cent said they had full control in the UK – similar to the results from Germany and France, though Italy had a higher share who reported they had full control. However, informal hours flexibility is more widespread - 75 per cent of UK workers reported it was easy to take a few hours off for personal reasons compared with 67 per cent in Italy, 63 per cent in France, and 42 per cent in Germany. High shares of workers in all four major economies reported that work fitted well with family commitments, though just under a fifth said it did not. However, UK workers were less likely to say work fitted very well. UK workers were under more time pressure at work – they were less likely to say they had enough time to do the job and more likely to say they were always working to tight deadlines than in Germany, France or Italy. These results were not because more UK workers reported working at high speeds most of the time. UK workers were also more likely to say they wanted to work fewer hours than they did, compared with workers in Germany, France and Italy.

Job security

In the UK in 2015 about 12 per cent agreed that they might lose their job in six months' time and 74 per cent disagreed. This is roughly comparable with Germany and France, but much better than Italy. Asked whether they could get another job easily at a comparable wage, in the UK 49 per cent of people agreed they could and 35 per cent disagreed. These are significantly better scores than in Germany, France, and Italy – but still over a third in the UK feared job loss might involve moving to a less well-paid job.


In the UK the quality of work for most workers on most but not all indicators is comparable to or better than that in many other EU countries, including Germany, France and Italy. But there is no room for complacency. The UK still lags the best performers such as the Nordic economies and the Netherlands. Moreover, very significant minorities of the UK workforce are reporting poor treatment, little prospect to advance, little or no say at work, and no control over their job or hours. The new forms of work emerging with new technologies in the gig economy and elsewhere are throwing up a mix of both new and old problems around employment status and the balance between security and flexibility. The CIPD will be actively contributing to the public and policy debate about how best to meet these challenges and improve the quality of work for all in the months and years to come.

Ian Brinkley

Ian Brinkley, Acting Chief Economist

Ian Brinkley has been acting Chief Economist since July 2016. He was previously director of socio-economic programmes at the Work Foundation and held the positions of head of the economic and social affairs department and chief economist at the TUC between 1996 and 2006.