Does low pay and poor job quality really need to be an inevitable fact of key worker life?

Melanie Green, Research Adviser, CIPD  

The pandemic has prompted many a debate about the roles we value as a society, with key workers often in the spotlight, doing vital work in difficult circumstances. And today, the TUC released figures suggesting that low pay and insecure pay for key workers has contributed to more than 1m children from key worker families living in poverty.    

Many key worker roles are typically low paid – statistics from the ONS note that key workers in health and social care, along with foods and necessary goods are particularly likely to have low earnings, despite the invaluable role they play in society.  The  CIPD’s Good Work Index 2021, our annual snapshot of job quality in the UK, also finds that key workers are less likely to agree they are paid appropriately for their role than non-key workers (33% disagree they are paid appropriately, compared to 28% of non-key workers – a small but significant difference).   

Not only that, job quality for key workers falls short in a number of other key areas too. Thetuc findings perhaps won’t come as a surprise to many, but the questions we should be asking are: why do we accept that this is the norm for so many roles that play such an important part in our society? And what can employers do to break from the norm? 

Key workers find purpose in their role, but experience excessive pressure and workload 

One aspect of job quality that key workers fare well on – perhaps unsurprisingly – is meaningfulness. For example, 68% of key workers feel that they do meaningful work for society, compared to just 45% of non-key workers.  

But, we identify plenty of areas of concern. For example, over a quarter of key workers say they always or often feel exhausted at work (26%, compared with 17% of non-key workers), and feel under excessive pressure (25%, compared with 18%). Linked to this is workload, with 36% of key workers saying they have too much work, compared to 25% of non-key workers.  

While work pressure and high workload aren’t issues confined to key workers, they are heightened for this group. After a year of working through the pandemic in incredibly challenging circumstances, organisations will have to think carefully about how they support key worker wellbeing and relieve some of this pressure to avoid further burnout.  

Flexible working availability is lacking for key workers 

Over half of key workers (56%) said they have never worked from home since the onset of the pandemic. Just a quarter (24%) worked from home all the time, compared to over half (56%) of non-key workers.  

The nature of many key worker roles means that remote working isn’t an option, but our data also suggests that other forms of flexibility aren’t readily available either (for example, 57% of key workers said flexi time isn’t available to them, compared to 43% of non-key workers).  

Again, the nature of some key worker roles means that shift patterns or working hours need to be set to maintain service levels. However, a lack of flexibility need not be inevitable; there are creative ways to allow flexibility even in roles that aren’t traditionally ‘flexible’ as we discuss in our Cross-sector insights on enabling flexible working guide. 

Informal flexibility is also a challenge: 31% of key workers said they would find it hard to take a few hours off during the working day to take care of personal matters, compared to just 13% of non-key workers.  

Paying attention to flexibility for key workers will be important to avoid further inequalities in flexible working availability post pandemic, with many organisations planning for a hybrid way of working.  

How can we improve key worker job quality? 

Finally, 4 in 10 respondents in this year’s survey identified themselves as key worker, according to the UK government definition. This represents a range of roles, industries and sectors and therefore workplace experiences. Understanding the challenges key workers in different sectors face, and identifying ways that jobs or working practices can be adapted will help employers make meaningful progress in their context.  

Our data does show that key workers are generally satisfied with their opportunities for voice, in some cases more so than non-key workers, so employers should make the most of this engagement and harness it to make improvements. In sectors where the usual forms of flexibility are challenging, and there are budgetary constraints, innovative ideas from employees ‘on the ground’ can be a valuable source of creative ideas.  Our Talking about voice report shares  insights from a variety of organisations who note the importance of voice for innovative ideas, and the importance of allowing these ideas to influence decision making.  

There are of course other issues at play for many key workers, including low pay and lack of progression in some health and social care and retail roles. These traits are often considered inherent to certain roles, but it’s time to challenge the status quo and start rewarding the workers that create so much value for society with better quality jobs and opportunities to progress.    

Do you think we value key workers enough? Why do you think key workers fair worse than others on so many measures of job quality? Is it inevitable? What could be done to improve job quality for key workers? 
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or in our discussion forum, here. 

For more insights and discussion about this year’s Good Work Index, read the following blog posts:  

  • A new era of Good Work
  • A calm before the storm? Why hasn't job quality changed drastically in the wake of the pandemic? 

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