The furlough scheme saved millions of jobs, but job quality continues to fall short

CIPD releases new insights on working lives in the UK, with key recommendations to help employers create better quality jobs.

retail worker wearing rubber gloves and scanning fruit

The CIPD’s annual Good Work Index report, launched today, finds that job quality in the UK continues to fall short on several key measures and inequalities persist. 

Despite the massive upheaval of the pandemic, it finds that, for the most part, good jobs remained good and bad jobs remained bad. 

The CIPD Good Work Index has been measuring and reporting on job quality since 2018 and the professional body urges its members, and employers more broadly, to use these valuable insights into people’s experience of work to inform their policies and practice. 

Too many workers report poor wellbeing, lack of development and unmanageable workloads

The Good Work Index examines seven key dimensions of job quality: pay and benefits; employment contracts; work–life balance; job design and nature of work; relationships at work; employee voice; and health and wellbeing. 

This year’s report finds that, although the furlough scheme saved millions of jobs, too many jobs continue to fall short of the UK’s ambition for ‘good work’

Key findings include:

  • One in four workers say work is bad for their physical or mental wellbeing (23% and 25% respectively – representing little change from 2020, where 26% and 27% of workers said this).
  •  Just 52% say work offers good opportunities for development (and only 40% of furloughed workers say the same) – showing little improvement from 2020 when 48% of workers said this. 
  • 30% of workers report unmanageable workloads, similar to the 32% that said this in 2020. This year the figure rose to 36% among key workers and 32% among those working from home all the time (regardless of occupation). 
  • One in four workers report poor work–life balance, finding it difficult to relax in their personal time because of work (the same figure as 2020), and flexible working options remain out of reach for many.  

Inequalities in job quality persist… 

Access to good work continues to vary by occupation. Despite some trade-offs (for example, in terms of workload and work–life balance), higher and managerial professional roles tend to have more positive perceptions of many aspects of job quality. 

One example is employee voice – a particular concern given the potential for voice to influence other aspects of job quality. Compared with previous years, more workers in 2021 say that managers and employee representatives are good at seeking their views. But occupational inequalities are still at play, with higher managerial and professional roles most satisfied with opportunities for voice, and routine occupations the least satisfied. Only a third (33%) of those in routine occupations say managers are good at seeking the views of employees or employee representatives, compared to over half (55%) of those in higher managerial occupations. And, overall, 19% of workers report they have no access to voice channels in their organisations, suggesting many organisations need to do more to give their workers avenues for voice. 

… and some have been exacerbated due to furlough 

Disparities in opportunity for skills development is another cause for concern, and one which has been exacerbated for those who were furloughed. Pre pandemic, those in routine, semi-routine and lower supervisory and technical roles were less likely to say their job offers opportunities for development than those in intermediate, managerial and professional occupations. 

The same holds true this year. For example, 63% of those in higher managerial and professional roles say they have the opportunity to develop their skills, compared with just 27% of those in routine occupations. The CIPD’s data confirms that these lower occupational groups are also most likely to be furloughed – this is reflected in the proportion of furloughed workers who say their job offers opportunity to develop their skills (40%, compared to 54% not furloughed).

These inequalities are particularly alarming when you consider that those who were furloughed are more than twice as likely to fear losing their job in the next 12 months, and ONS data shows that those in lower ‘class’ occupations saw the most redundancies in 2020 (see Figure 2 in the Good Work Index research report).

Melanie Green, Research Adviser at the CIPD, comments: 

‘Most jobs come with trade-offs in different aspects of job quality, but these compromises needn’t be inevitable and all jobs have the potential to be better. So when employers say “people are our greatest asset”, they ought to put their money where their mouth is by investing in job quality. 

‘As we rebuild our economy post-pandemic, employers must invest in job quality across their workforce, to minimise trade-offs and avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. A strong recovery is not just about more jobs, but better jobs too. It may not be realistic to make all jobs great in all ways, but with a better understanding of the different aspects of job quality, employers can and should help ensure that work benefits people and societies as much as it benefits business and the economy.’

Employers can and should act now to improve job quality

The CIPD is urging employers to review the various dimensions of job quality explored in the Good Work Index and consider what they can do to ensure that good work is a reality throughout their organisation. 

For example, it recommends that employers:

  • Examine potential trade-offs in job quality and consider whether these are necessary. Challenge the assumption that lower paid occupations inevitably have fewer opportunities for skills development, or managerial roles will always struggle with workload.
  • Keep wellbeing high on the agenda, even when the pandemic subsides. Take an individual approach that recognises wellbeing challenges look different for each of us – and will partly be influenced by other aspects of job quality. 
  • Prioritise better skills development and alignment. Think about how to make skills development more readily available and address any mismatches between skills and job roles – especially for those in routine and semi-routine roles and those who’ve been furloughed.  
  • Monitor workloads. Put enough resource in place to avoid overwork and negative implications for wellbeing – especially for remote workers and key workers.
  • Review flexible working options to address the work–life balance challenges your workforce faces. If some types of flexible working are out of the question for certain roles, identify other forms of flexibility that would benefit both parties. 

What else does the data tell us about job quality?

The Good Work Index provides a wealth of valuable insights on working lives in the UK and each insight raises pertinent questions about what drives good or bad job quality. Over the coming weeks and months, the CIPD’s research team will be exploring some of these questions in a series of blog posts and Community discussions, in which it will invite people professionals to share their views and experiences. In the first of these, Mel Green asks why job quality remained so stable in the face of the pandemic. Are we witnessing the calm before the storm? Or does this mean that job quality is resilient in times of crisis, and therefore worth investing in?

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