Opinion: Employers should cut hours not people during pandemic

If the UK emulated short-time working programmes in countries like Germany it would help mitigate the mental health as well as economic crises caused by the coronavirus, says the Employment Dosage research team.

When my work disappeared, I felt like part of my identity, my place in the world, went with it

Lil Woods

Millions of UK lives have been changed significantly in the last few weeks, even those who have not been infected by the virus. Three of the most widespread changes for many working age adults have been:

1. The loss of a job or a large reduction in working hours

2. A shift in the place of work from the employer’s premises to homeworking

3. Living in social isolation alone or with other members of one’s household (adults and children) who are also spending more time at home.

We know from past research that any one of these can have negative mental health consequences, but the combined effects of these changes is unprecedented and unexplored. There are already media reports of the strain that this is putting on individuals and families. It is likely that many of these problems will be exacerbated over the coming months.

Deteriorating levels of mental health in the population will not just cause individual misery – for instance through increased symptoms of anxiety and depression – but the research to date on unemployment suggests that this will likely lead to knock on effects on the family, particularly a spouse. It may also lead to increased breaches of social distancing rules or civil unrest.

The Chancellor’s plans to save jobs through the furlough scheme are largely aimed at the financial fallout of the pandemic: the desire to avoid widespread hunger, destitution and financial insecurity, while also recognising the importance to society’s overall wellbeing of the ability for businesses to recover quickly.

Why employment matters beyond income

As social scientists have found repeatedly, in different countries and different demographic groups, the loss of the wage only explains a small fraction of the very large mental health deficit associated with unemployment and economic inactivity.

We now know that the ‘incidental’ aspects of having a job – e.g. time structure, social contact, shared goals, sense of achievement, enforced activity – are hugely important for our wellbeing. In our new short video, Lil Woods, a freelance arts charity worker, discusses how the lockdown has left her missing a sense of purpose: “When my work disappeared, I felt like part of my identity, my place in the world, went with it.”

It has proven almost impossible to find substitutes for jobs that fulfil the same functions: leisure activities, voluntary work or workfare just don’t provide us with the same levels of wellbeing through feeling valued. While some post-work utopians dream of a world where work is largely eliminated, there is little evidence that it could exist as a reality. In fact, recent ONS data shows work has become a coping mechanism in this crisis.

So, it seems, we have an impossible situation – for most people good mental health requires a job, but there simply aren’t enough jobs in the right sectors or with the right skill sets to go around, and this situation is likely to last for many more months of the current pandemic.

A possible solution: short-time working

Fortunately there’s a solution to this paradox, and one that’s being taken seriously in other countries: short-time working. The hastily-introduced measures to protect jobs in the UK encourage employers to retain some or all staff where:

• there is essential work to be done, for example health and emergency workers

• the work can be done at home, as with many office workers

• the work can be done while maintaining safe distancing, such as some agricultural jobs.

Other employees and self-employed workers will be stopped from working, and either be paid to stay at home or lose their wage too. How does it work? Other European countries, such as Germany and Austria, have traditionally used short-time work programmes to deal with economic crises. Employers can reduce the hours of employees, typically with some compensation from public funds to mitigate some of the loss of hours. This has several benefits over the all-or-nothing job shedding being used in the UK.

• Employees retain their attachment to an employer and have more certainty over their future.

• It is easier for employers to vary their volume and type of labour power as the pandemic peaks and then we start an exit strategy.

• Employees can be redeployed depending on their skills, adaptability of the job to homeworking or safe-distancing, or the pre-existing health conditions of the employee.

Recent research by economists from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich suggest that, by early April 2020, 15% of people in the UK had lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak compared to only 5% in Germany.

Turning back to the psychological functions of paid work, just how much employment is needed each week to preserve the mental health of employees, and at what point does their wellbeing drop to be closer to those who are unemployed?

Could it work in the UK?

The surprising finding from our research using UK and EU datasets is that increasing individuals’ hours of work from zero to just eight hours a week provides a large boost to their mental health, and there is little or no further psychological benefit as weekly hours are increased from eight to 40. The lesson for government strategy is clear: where possible (and with population health being the priority) keep everyone in paid work; even one day a week will keep more of us sane in these volatile times.

The Employment Dosage research team is led by Dr Brendan Burchell from the Department of Sociology, with co-investigators Dr Daiga Kamerade, Dr Adam Coutts, Dr Ursula Balderson and Dr Senhu Wang.

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