Is any job better than no job? No. A "bad" job can make you feel worse than being unemployed, says Manchester Uni


Interesting research brought to us by the LSE blog. They remind us that the consensus for many years - resting on the work of social scientist Richard Layard, and particularly on this paper - is that (to quote Layard) “human happiness is more affected by whether or not one has a job, than by what kind of job it is”.

This has provided the basis of a cross-party consensus on the shift from welfare to workfare. The point is to move people into employment, for the sake of their own wellbeing, and not have them miserable and languishing on the dole. From Gordon Brown’s job-seekers allowance (Layard-inspired), to the Tories’ current Universal Credit, the assumption that a job - any job - improves wellbeing has been a solid backdrop for policy. It makes us happier.

What if that was wrong, asks Tarani Chandola in the LSE blog? And what if our indicator wasn’t the happiness of the worker/non-worker, but how stressed they were?

In his paper (full PDF here), Tarani “directly tested the assumption that any job is better than no job in relation to physical and mental health outcomes as well as chronic stress-related biomarkers”. They found evidence suggesting that “people’s levels of stress are more affected by having a poor quality job than by being unemployed.”

Following up 1000 people surveyed in 2010, measuring those in and out of work, their job quality if in work, and everyone’s stress levels, they found that:

Unsurprisingly, those who found work in good quality jobs had a big improvement in their mental health. Moreover, those with any job, whether it is a good or bad job, had a bigger increase in their household incomes than those who remained unemployed.

However, contrary to the “any job is better than no job” assumption, we found that the improvements in the mental health of formerly unemployed adults who became reemployed in poor quality work (with two or more adverse job measures) were not any different from their peers who remained unemployed.

More significantly, those who were working in poor quality work actually had higher levels of “allostatic load” (chronic stress-related biomarkers) than their peers who remained unemployed…

So does this mean unemployed people should refuse job offers that are characterised by low pay, job insecurity and stressful working conditions? Unfortunately, very few will be in such a fortunate position – to be able to refuse a job. Only about 20 percent of the unemployed cohort initially were in receipt of unemployment-related benefits, which means most were living off other sources of income including income transfers from family and household members.

If the Layard assumption doesn’t hold, then there are some significant consequences for the future. If technology displaces a whole swathe of routinized jobs, then governments might feel more emboldened to try out a citizens’ or basic incomes.

If they accept that the wellbeing of citizens doesn’t depend entirely on wage labour, then why force them into what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs? And what range of purposes and initiatives - creative, caring, civic, entrepreneurial, locally-oriented - could be thought about?