The Quality of Work: the Rebirth of a Policy Priority?

In 2000, in the declaration of the Lisbon Strategy, Europe took an unprecedented step of formally incorporating the improvement of the quality of work into its core mission objectives. But, despite early promise with the inclusion of the objective into the Employment Guidelines and the establishment of indicators designed to monitor the progress of member states, the salience of the quality of work agenda declined in subsequent years, due to the increased emphasis on competitiveness following the mid-term evaluation of the Lisbon Strategy and subsequently the onset of the economic crisis which shifted priorities to the creation of more jobs whatever their quality.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing awareness by policy makers of the need to return to the issue. A notable event was the declaration of the G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial meeting at Ankara in September 2015 (subsequently endorsed by the G20 Leaders’ Summit in November 2015), which announced a commitment to ‘enhancing job quality in our own economies and around the world’.

A number of factors can be seen as underpinning the renewed concern about the quality of jobs. The first is the realization that the achievement of higher levels of employment is likely to be conditional on improvements in job quality. For instance, the reduction of the pension burden on state budgets will require that older workers are able to continue working well past traditional ages of retirement. But this will only be feasible if the types of jobs in which people are employed in the earlier phases of their careers encourage an ongoing development of their skills so that they are able to adapt to the changing technological contexts of work. Similarly working conditions will need to take account of the greater physical constraints that older people are likely to experience. Further progress in the integration of women into the labour market likewise will require marked improvements in the quality of part-time work and more progressive policies to facilitate work-family balance for both men and women in full-time work.

Increasing technological complexity, with new developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, will certainly displace large numbers of routine jobs. But at the same time they will require higher levels of expertise in their design and maintenance and they will expand the work capabilities of those in more highly skilled work.

Highly skilled, complex work, is very difficult to monitor through traditional modes of supervision and high levels of quality will depend upon employees’ motivation and commitment to their job tasks and the organization for which they are working. The cumulative findings of research on motivation show that it most powerfully affected by the quality of the intrinsic features of work: for instance the discretion that employees have in how they carry out their tasks, the variety in the work, the opportunities for training and the ability to have a voice in decisions in the organization. 

Third there have been major advances in research evidence about the impact of the quality of work conditions on the psychological and physical health of employees. For instance there is now good longitudinal data that shows that the combination of high work pressure with low job control leads to significantly higher risks not only of subjective psychological distress but also of risks of cardiovascular disease. There is also well established evidence that in work conditions where there is a marked imbalance between effort and rewards (which crucially include proper recognition and job security) psychological and physical health risks are notably higher. A separate body of research has shown that systems of decision-making that are seen as procedurally unjust lead to severe negative consequences for employee well-being. In many countries, this has led to a broadening of the scope of the conception of health and safety at work and a recognition that the way jobs are designed should be an essential part of the responsibilities of employers with respect to employee health.

Despite the long-term benefits that employers (at least in more technologically advanced firms) are likely to receive from providing good quality working conditions, the lack of change over time registered in successive European working conditions surveys suggests that managerial practices are still primarily dominated by relatively immediate concerns about costs and informed by traditional views about managerial prerogative. 

If significant improvements are to be made to the quality of work, this will require active intervention by governments, supported by the social partners. The importance and efficacy of national level institutional intervention is evident from the very sharp variations in the quality of work between countries.

The Nordic countries stand out from almost all other European countries in the very high quality of the working environment they provide. This reflects both the prolonged period in power of social democratic governments in the decades after the Second World War and the close involvement of the trade unions in national decision making. Clearly these are countries with exceptionally high levels of union membership. But the example of the Netherlands, which also has a high quality of working conditions, shows that union density per se is not a necessary precondition of progressive policies. Rather the crucial factors are the political orientation of governments and the ability of social partners, with a commitment to reform, to influence national decision-making processes.

The recent signs of increased recognition by governments of the need to improve the quality of jobs may be opening then an important new opportunity for policy reform in European countries, in which political leaders, employer associations, trade unions and health specialists could come together to construct and promote effective programmes for the improvement of people’s working lives.


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