By Anthony Painter
Throughout the pandemic, the RSA has been tracking the experience of work amongst so-called ‘key workers’: the health, care, distribution, retail, energy, local government, finance and manufacturing workers that kept the country functioning as we went into repeated lockdowns.
We were interested in what the experience of these workers told us about the impact of the pandemic on key roles in support of economy and society. More broadly, would the experience of this category of workers indicate something more fundamental about the experience of modern work and economic security? The answer was yes and in not immediately apparent ways.
Key workers, through the nature of the in-demand work that they do, tend to enjoy relative job security. And yet, their experience of the past year and a half has been incredibly onerous in general.
Almost half of the key workers found maintaining a healthy work life balance more difficult during the pandemic; 58 percent in the case of both health and care workers. Almost two-thirds of key workers found it more difficult to maintain their mental health by the lockdown of 2021. This rose to 73 percent in the case of health workers. Women were 14 percent more likely than men to report that they were struggling to maintain their mental health (perhaps due in part to their concentration in the most stressful and demanding sectors).
Although there is relative job security amongst these workers, they suffer detrimental impacts on their home life and health. This is a ‘security trap’: the price for security of work and income is wider negative impacts on individuals and families. Beyond key workers alone, security traps where income, wealth and the cost-of-living trade-off against health and home life afflict other workers too. The most precarious workers face a triple whammy of low or unstable income, negative health and work-life balance.
What does any of this have to do with levelling up? Any strategy that levels up places will have to think about the type of work available in a locality and where there is a density of work that either fails to support stable incomes and development of an asset base for households or creates heavily burdensome knock-on effects on health and quality of life. Such security traps have an effect on not just purchasing power but the opportunity to engage civically as time shortens and cognitive bandwidth narrows. All these factors influence the economic dynamism and quality of life of an area.
Yet, it would be a mistake to de-couple the conversation about levelling up places and the contribution that work can and should make to supporting people and places.
There are short-term interventions that can be made. The real living wage should be paid to all health and care workers as a matter of priority. And the retail sector should be required by law to commit to introducing the same in the coming years. Improving statutory sick pay to 60 percent of wages would ensure workers weren’t so pressured to choose between their work and health.
Flexibly available universal affordable healthcare would help manage the tension between work and family. Investment in support for the mental health of those in health and care and increasing the work-force would alleviate downsides of working at the sharp end. A guaranteed, unconditional income of at least £60 per week achieved by turning national insurance and income tax allowance into a cash grant fully available to all adults not just those earning over £11,500 would also help underlay economic security.
The reduced Universal Credit taper rate in the Autumn Budget was welcome and proves the golden rule: every sensible change to Universal Credit makes it look more like a Basic Income. So why not just go the whole distance and put a Basic Income in place? Trials in Finland and elsewhere have shown it supports trust, well-being without disincentivising employment.
Ultimately, the task is to ensure that levelling up is an agenda imbued with a rich sense of how income, wealth, assets, quality of life and experience of place interrelate and spots ways of weaving them together. Nothing could be more totemic after a pandemic than to ensure that health and care services and work contribute more to a positive experience of place. Many more overlaps between levelling up, work and place are possible such as the development of a place-enhancing Net Zero economy though neighbourhood improvement and retrofitting of both residential and commercial buildings.
There isn’t an aspect of levelling up that doesn’t run through the quality of our working lives. But nor is work just an economic challenge. It is fundamental to the quality of the places in which we live and our experience of them. Good work supports economic security and good places and vice versa.
By Anthony Painter, Chief Research and Impact Officer at The RSA