Pay may be up for the UK’s lowest earners, but so are work demands and stress levels

·1 min read

Despite what some lurid headlines claim, we don’t all hate our jobs. I like mine because I get to read great papers from the Resolution Foundation team, including one showing job satisfaction hasn’t been falling and four out of five of us think our job is “helpful to others”.

But it also showed those averages hide job satisfaction falls among low earners, whose work has become more stressful and intense in recent decades.

How hard we work can’t just be measured in terms of hours, which is why new research examining how workers’ time in the United States gets used gives us more, and very welcome, granularity. It shows that a lack of frequent “on-the-job leisure episodes” (I call them breaks) raises workers’ stress levels. That’s bad news because the past four decades saw uninterrupted working time increase by 7% in the US, raising stress significantly.

Why does this matter for the UK? Because this might help explain why job satisfaction among low earners is down despite the national minimum wage (possibly the biggest policy success this century) raising their pay faster than the rest of us over the past two decades and cutting low pay rates back to levels not seen since the 1970s.

Firms facing rising wage costs because of big increases in the minimum wage responded in a number of ways. One, covered in a new report from the Low Pay Commission (which oversees the minimum wage) was to increase work intensity instead of raising productivity in better ways (such as investing in new kit). So what’s the task for British policymakers and British firms? To get pay up and stress down.

• Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at resolutionfoundation.org

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