Guest contributor: Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer at the Carnegie UK Trust (Written 26 February 2021)
The coronavirus pandemic has severely impacted lives and livelihoods. Millions of workplaces have been shut down and workers furloughed, and business models and ways of working have been disrupted on a near-universal scale. But in the last year, we have also seen labour market interventions and business innovations that were previously unimaginable, and the rise of calls to build back a better labour market.
There has rightly been a major focus on protecting employment during the pandemic. But, being in poor quality work – jobs that are low-paid, unsafe, insecure, lacking voice or a sense of control – also exert a negative toll on wellbeing and the sustainability of work. If we don’t actively seek to embed ‘good work’ through the pandemic and the recovery, we risk seeing even greater worker insecurity, poverty and public discontent than that which followed the last recession. We risk failing to reward the sacrifices that all citizens, but especially key workers, have made during this time. And we risk the economic recovery, as evidence shows that better quality work makes workers more productive.
But how can we balance the goals of sustaining employment and good work, when businesses, governments and individuals are under such heightened pressure from tackling the pandemic?
Last year, Carnegie UK Trust published a report 'Good Work for Wellbeing in the Coronavirus Economy'. This sets out a package of proposals to protect and advance Good Work now and in the medium term, with government, employers and civil society all needing to play a part. While under considerable pressures, employers can and do make active choices that improve job quality - reaping the benefits in employee engagement and productivity.
Employers can, for example, set up meaningful voice and consultation channels, to ensure their workers are informed and able to express their views and knowledge about changes at work. They can draw on the range of remote working good practice guidance that exists to try to make remote working lives more balanced and fulfilling. Health, safety and psychosocial wellbeing have moved to the top of the job quality priority list during the pandemic, and there is much employers can do to ensure staff are and feel adequately protected and supported if they are delivering public-facing services, or need to take time off through sickness.
Making working lives better is a big part of how we get through the experience of this pandemic together, and the ambition we should take into the economic recovery.
Q&A with Gail Irvine:
Do you have advice surrounding those who may not wish to return to the office, once Coronavirus restrictions are lifted?
- There will be those who are desperate to return to the office, but others who are quite reluctant, and fearful.
- This may expose and exacerbate inequalities - for example, a generational divide of preference to return to the office.
- There needs to be more public policy, and media awareness, on this potential split. More conversations need to be had, to ensure there is no discriminative effect here.
- Line managers need support for this transition, and how this split may affect an employees development and progression moving forward.
What support is needed for employees to self-isolate?
- Need to look at financial support, to ensure that those who have to self-isolate don't have barriers to do so due to their income.
- Revision of Statutory Sick Pay - could become a way to compensate people at this time, where employers can't.
- There are also behavioural barriers: for example, management styles in which employees feel pressure to avoid self-isolation. Support is needed to ensure that employees feel comfortable taking this time off.
- Mental and physical wellbeing: the implications of staying in isolation for 2 weeks may be more challenging for some employees than others, and this needs to be considered and planned for.
What is Carnegie's view on the Zero-hours contracts culture?
- There is not enough evidence to understand the risks and opportunities surrounding zero-hours contracts.
- Would be interesting to review the choice in Ireland to ban zero-hours contracts in the majority of cases, and whether this has proved to be successful.
- Need to raise more awareness among employers about the importance of employees having secure work - unless it is a preferred option by an employee.