This blog by Anne Saint-Martin, Economist at the OECD, is part of the Wikiprogress focus on the “Well-being in the workplace: Measuring job quality” chapter of the How's Life? 2013.
Workers in high-strain jobs, who lack the support they need to cope with difficult work demands, are more likely to suffer from job burnout, to develop musculoskeletal disorders, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. The list is long, and worrying. For instance a recent study published by Harvard researchers suggests that women in demanding and stressful jobs have a 38% increased risk of heart disease. Compared with those in low-strain jobs, they have a 67% raised risk of a heart attack, the study shows.
This is worrying as high-strain jobs are relatively widespread. A recent OECD study shows that in Europe, 20% of employees report difficult work situations, facing multiple job 'stressors' without adequate support and resources to cope with. And half of those in high-strain jobs report that work impairs their health, compared to only 15% for those in low-strain jobs.
People spend most of their day and a significant part of their life at work. Employment is not only a major driver of material living standards but also powerful determinants of one’s quality of life.
It is not just a question of having a job, it’s also about of job quality.
So what are the elements that make up a quality job?
The features of a job that contribute to the well-being of workers include interactions with colleagues, support from managers, work content, autonomy in decision-making, earnings and job security. Job quality has multiple facets.
In the current economic climate, insecure employment and in-work poverty are at the heart of policy debates in many OECD countries. But looking beyond these economic aspects and opening the Pandora box of job quality remains a key challenge for economists and policymakers. As a matter of fact, measuring well-being at the workplace, its determinants and its consequences on life quality, is not an easy task.
People may face a variety of stress factors at work, such as dealing with heavy workload and time pressures, coping with conflicting demands, or performing physically demanding tasks. What matters for their well-being is both the accumulation of such 'stressors' and whether they are given a fair chance to meet these multiple requirements. Without well-defined work goals, sufficient work autonomy, support from colleagues and managers, demanding jobs can impair people’s health. But with adequate resources and support, they can be conductive to personal achievement.
In part due to an increasing awareness of work-related health problems among the public at large, well-being at the workplace has gained momentum in the public debate. This change has emerged alongside a wealth of research in occupational health, epidemiology, management and sociology, indicating that there is a strong relationship between job quality and peoples’ physical and mental health.
But the difficulties of defining and measuring the quality of work organisation and that of workplace relationships in ways that are amenable to comparisons over time and across countries remain a major obstacle to giving more prominence to these aspects of job quality in the policy debate, despite their importance for people’s well-being. Further work is needed to develop cross-country comparable indicators so as to identify best practices. This is in the agenda of the OCDE, as part of a major project on job quality: “Defining, Measuring and Assessing Job Quality and its Links to Labour Market Performance and Well-Being”.
Slopen N., Glynn R., Buring J., Lewis T., Williams D. and M. Albert (2012), “Job Strain, Job Insecurity, and Incident Cardiovascular Disease in the Women’s Health Study: Results from a 10-Year Prospective Study”, PloS ONE, Vol.7, No.7.
OECD (2013), “Well-being in the workplace: Measuring job quality” in How’s life? Measuring Well-Being.