Work is becoming less central to our lives

Jonny Gifford, interim Head of Research at the CIPD, explores changing attitudes towards work in the UK 

A new study by King’s College London has found that nearly one fifth of British people say work is not important in their life. This places Britain in bottom spot among 24 countries studied. The research team also found that Britons are among the least likely to say that work should come first over leisure time and that these views have become more common since 2009. 

Looking at more recent trends, the 2023 CIPD Good Work Index shows similar changes in UK attitudes towards work and sheds some light on potential reasons. This year, compared to pre-pandemic, we saw more people taking a transactional view towards their jobs (see chart below). UK workers are markedly more likely to feel that ‘a job is a way of earning money - no more’ and less likely to say they ‘would enjoy having a paid job even if [they] did not need money’. Work seems to be occupying a less important place in our lives. There are also signs that this is feeding through into our behaviours. UK workers are generally less likely to go the extra mile than they were a few years ago – that is, to be willing to work harder than they have to in order to help their employer or organisation.

Is that an indication of what’s been dubbed ‘quiet quitting’? This is the new label for withdrawing effort, a phenomenon as old as the hills – it echoes the words of Bartleby in Herman Melville’s 1853 novella Bartleby, the Scrivener, who repeatedly declined his boss’s requests with a simple: “I would prefer not to”. 

The phrase ‘quiet quitting’ is far too negative to describe where most people are at. It’s fairer to say that some workers are recalibrating their priorities and placing less emphasis on work. That could be more a question of looking after oneself and striving for a better work-life balance, rather than slacking off.  

Why might this be happening? While people’s general levels of satisfaction with their lives took a huge knock during the pandemic, this wasn’t the case with job satisfaction. This instead has seen a slight decline, which could be part of a long-term negative trend or may self-adjust. Even so, it is understandable if the shock of the pandemic has prompted a ‘great rethink’ about our working lives. 

Levels of excessive workloads have barely dipped since the pandemic, and in the public sector (see below) 42% of workers still feel their workload is unsustainable (see chart below).   

This tallies with worrying trends in negative impacts of work on mental health (see chart below). This is perhaps not a huge surprise, given that work pressure has been central to some of the recent industrial disputes in the UK public sector, in particular those among doctors and nurses. 

However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as our CIPD Good Work Index 2023 research confirms. Most people continue to have a good experience of work, with high levels of job satisfaction and good relationships with both line managers and colleagues. Most people like their work and find it fulfilling. But it’s a serious concern that one in three workers in the public sector, and one in four elsewhere, say that work is detrimental to their mental health. And it’s understandable if the pressure and shock of the pandemic have led people to place less importance on their jobs, or even see work as a disutility – an inconvenience to get through to enjoy the rest of your life. 

It may help to question expectations of work effort. Any sensible employer wants to motivate workers to put in a good shift and achieve well in their jobs. But that needs to go hand in hand with supporting employees to be effective and healthy. You can have bursts of giving 100%, but it’s not realistic to pace oneself at that level of effort all the time, and you’re at risk of burnout if you try. We need a bit of downtime, not just at lunch, but also, for example, taking a moment to chat with colleagues. We have a duty, to ourselves and to those we manage, to find work-life balance and look after ourselves.  

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