Here are three things we learned last week about work in the 21st century:
• The UK's annual sick-leave bill hit £32bn
• McDonald's turned away 1m people seeking part-time, minimum-wage jobs
• Having a menial job is worse for you than having no job at all.
Together these items tell a dismal story that makes a mockery of the May Day celebrations on Monday. To understand it, let’s take them in reverse order.
'Researchers at Australian National University have found that positions with low security, high demands, and imbalanced effort-reward ratios cause more mental distress than unemployment. Over seven years, the researchers followed 7,000 respondents in an Australian labor survey. People who moved from no employment to jobs of “high psychosocial quality” showed gains in mental health. But those who went from jobless to employed in thankless, unstable positions were found to be more depressed and anxious than those who never got hired at all.'
We've long known about the long-term psychological and social damage caused by unemployment. So it’s truly shocking to find that the the richest, most advanced countries in the world are now creating jobs that are so insecure, poorly paid, and of such low-status that they are worse than not having a job at all.
Perhaps it’s just temporary, a result of employers tightening their belts to last out the worst depression since the 1930s? Doubtful, to say the least. A 2010 headline in the FT said it all – ‘Recession work practices are 'here to stay'”.
‘“The private sector has got used to getting a greater return from their workers and they will be reluctant to return to pre-recession conditions when the downturn is over,” the managing director of Manpower UK told the newspaper. “Flexible engagement has worked fantastically well, so has rewarding output rather than attendance.”
Well, it does for some. Thus zero-hours contracts, where employees are on call but not guaranteed work (or pay) are on the increase, particularly in retail and for women. Employers such as Xerox don’t pay staff when they aren’t actually fixing photocopiers, while call centres have taken to paying only when agents are logged on to their computers. ‘Trial periods’ are required for even menial jobs – and, like internships for the posher, aren’t paid.
The Night Cleaner, a real-life account by French journalist Florence Aubenas of six months working as a part-time cleaner in and around a French provincial town, tells the story taken to the extreme – a story of work stripped down to the barest of essentials, where the workers are simply units of labour, without feelings or agency, to be bought and sold.
‘The harder he makes us work, the shittier we feel. The shittier we feel, the more we let ourselves get ground down,‘ says one cleaner, encapsulating the Australian research in pithier terms.
No, let's be clear: this is neither temporary nor an aberration. We’re paying back, with interest, the Faustian assumption that real prosperity can be bought by sacrificing everything else to it, including meaning at and dignity of work.
As companies have automated and outsourced everything that could be (including a great deal, such as service, that shouldn't), work has been so hollowed out that the only jobs left are literally McJobs. When McDonald's held a 'national hiring day' last week to recruit 50,000 new hires, mostly part time and paying the minimum wage, 1 million turned up. In the end the company hired 62,000, – but that was just a tiny fraction of those it turned away, desperate for employment of any kind. This, and night cleaning, is the authentic face of work in the 21st century.
Not surprisingly, to many people it just doesn’t appeal all that much. Not only does it not make them want to get out of bed in the morning: sometimes it makes them want to stay in bed.
Which is just what they do. According to a report by consultancy PWC, UK workers take an average of 10 unscheduled days of leave a year, the vast majority of them down to sickness, or ‘sickness’. This is twice the rate in the US and Asia, although on a par with the rest of Europe. The estimated direct cost of £32bn a year may understate the total, says PWC, since it doesn't take into account the costs of replacing the absentee, nor those caused by lost productivity.
Differences between sectors are interesting, suggesting that stress-related sickies aren't just a question of high-pressure work. Thus, sickness rates in highly competitive industries such as high-tech are lower than in retail, leisure and, glaringly, the public sector, where just the kind of psychosocial pressures identified by the Australian research, not to mention Aubenas – insecurity, low status and pay, lack of work autonomy – are most at play.
Linking them together, last week’s news items form a new chapter in the ignoble story of companies’ progressive offloading of responsibility for their employees’ wellbeing. First career, then pensions, now basic wellbeing at work have been systematically stripped out of the employment contract. It’s as if 200 years of campaigning, starting with the Quakers and trade unions, had never existed.
As PWC notes, there’s no secret about getting people to go the full mile, let alone the extra one, at work. Keeping people engaged and committed is the biggest part of the battle. But to do that, you have to give them engaging and meaningful work to do. Many companies obviously reckon that that's too expensive. But here's something else they should have discovered last week. As with many other commodities, cheap labour actually ain't so cheap after all.