Can we achieve ‘good work’ for everyone, or are some jobs inherently better than others?

One thing the COVID-19 lockdown has brought into relief is the different quality jobs that exist across occupations. Perhaps most obviously, we have the key workers, with their newfound appreciation as a backbone of society, but many of whom have relatively low paid jobs, from auxiliary nurses to shop assistants to warehouse workers. What’s more, they sit in contrast to professionals who have the luxury of being able to work at home without any major interruption to their work.

What do we know more broadly about the makeup of our jobs market and differences in job quality across occupations? The CIPD Good Work Index, based on a representative survey of UK workers, sheds light on this from various angles to give important insights for employers.

Despite some trade-offs between good and bad aspects of work, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is clear

The big picture is that, although there are some trade-offs in job quality, when good aspects of a job compensate for bad aspects, what we see more often is that good work clusters. This means greater differences between the better and worse jobs, the haves and the have-nots. There is a clear job quality inequality.

We can see this general trend across occupational class for several aspects of job quality. The figure below shows that, in general, the ‘higher’ classes of occupations are not only better-paid but also likely to be more skilled, interesting and autonomous, with more contractual stability and voice or influence. We see a reversed trend for work-life balance and no clear trend for work-related health and wellbeing. The exception to these trends are self-employed routine and manual workers, who are much more able to craft their jobs yet often struggle with work-life balance and wellbeing.

Mean CIPD Good Work Index scores, by occupational class

Work-life balance is the biggest general trade-off in job quality

Work-life balance is the biggest general trade-off in job quality. Occupations that are better in most aspects tend to be worse when it comes to work encroaching on our personal lives, being hard to switch off from work, and so on. This may not be too much of a problem for some people – our previous analysis finds that work-life balance is less related to outcomes like job satisfaction and work effort than other dimensions of job quality. But work–life balance is clearly something the UK can improve on – by one measure, our analysis puts the UK 24th out of 25 comparator OECD economies.

However, these broad trends are only that, general differences, and can hide a wealth of variation. A more detailed view of occupations presents interesting examples that buck the trend or highlight other trade-offs that exist.

Which jobs see trade-offs between pay and wellbeing?

The two tables below show, from a list of 75 job categories, the occupations that differ the most in two fundamental aspects of job quality: workers’ views of their pay and benefits and their health and wellbeing.

On the one hand, the first table shows that animal carers, cleaners, agricultural labourers and others, including sports and fitness occupations, do very well in terms of health and wellbeing but poorly in terms of pay. On the other hand, the second table shows some of the highest paid occupations that do badly in wellbeing. These include legal services, health, and conservation and environment professionals, as well as research and development managers.

How do workers describe these trade-offs?

These trade-offs are illustrated by some workers’ views of the best and worst aspects of their jobs, something we ask survey respondents to describe in their own words. For example, one animal care worker describes the worst aspect of their job as ‘The pay is awful’, while another described the best aspect as ‘The dogs, being outside, exercise’. Meanwhile, legal professionals’ views on the best aspects of their jobs include ‘Flexibility and the salary’ or simply ‘Money’, whereas worst aspects include ‘Stress’, ‘Targets’, ‘The long hours’, ‘The volume of work’ and ‘Tight deadlines’.  

Health professionals also experience heavy workloads and insufficient resources. One explained it as follows: ‘The service is stretched beyond breaking point and staff are burdened with overloaded caseloads, lack of resources and increasing pressure from management to take on more with fewer staff and blindness on the part of management of the need to increase resources to meet that need.’

Some workers have a clear sense of the potential trade-offs in their occupations. Another health professional explained, ‘I took early retirement from a long and successful full-time NHS career. My current part-time role keeps me in touch with my profession and provides a level of service to patients, which is in keeping with the reason I joined a caring profession. I can practice in a way that is satisfying and rewarding. If I had completed this survey whilst in my previous full-time role, the results would have been a polar opposite.’

Beyond pay and wellbeing: other aspects of job quality

But of course, not everyone follows the general trends of their occupational group, and the jobs listed above are not solely defined in terms of pay or wellbeing. What’s more, there are some fundamentals of what makes almost any job a good job. For many workers, the best aspects of their jobs concern the nature of their day-to-day work, and here we can see some similarities across occupational groups.

For some, the best thing about their job is doing meaningful work in which their contributions are tangible:

  • ‘People call me in tears because their dog is driving them to despair and I can leave a household with a happy, well-adjusted dog’ (animal carer).
  • ‘Fits my skill set; I am fully qualified to do the job; making a difference to those in my organisation and our clients’ (legal professional).
  • ‘I am a dentist. I take people out of pain, improve their appearance and motivate them to good oral health’ (health professional).

For others, the best aspects of their jobs are being able to shape their work or employment to suit their preferences:  

  • ‘I am self-employed and can set my own hours, choose which clients I work with and take the business in the direction I feel is right’ (animal carer)
  • ‘Being my own boss and as long as the work is done on time having flexibility to start when I want.’ (housekeeper / cleaner)
  • ‘Able to use my knowledge from university, often work to my own schedule and decide how and when to do things’ (health professional)
  • ‘As a GP, my current job allows me to use my skills within an environment without the excessive demands of other posts’ (health professional).

Not all jobs will be great, but improvements can be made

Despite the trends that help us understand the dynamics of our jobs market, the differences are not cut and dried. People’s experiences within a profession can vary hugely from workplace to workplace, and employers cannot take for granted the quality of the jobs they create and the working lives that they shape day to day.

Employers should always find out directly from their workers how they view their jobs, whether this is through an employee survey, face-to-face meetings or other channels for employee voice. And they should seek ways to improve the aspects of jobs that are pressure points or in some other ways, downsides of the job. It may not be realistic to make all jobs great jobs in all ways – drudgery, pressure or insufficient pay may in some cases be difficult aspects to shift. But through effective employee voice and an understanding of job quality, employers can step-by-step seek improvements.

It is arguably a moral duty – not just to run productive organisations that hit short-term targets, but organisations that create longer-term value for individuals and society as well as the economy. Good work is worth working for in any occupation.

Note: For a view of how job quality varies across occupational groups, see our Good Work Index interactive graphic.

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