HR directors must drive wellbeing from the top, experts say

People in low-paid or high-stress jobs may experience worse health problems than those who are unemployed, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Manchester examined the self-reported health and chronic stress levels of more than 1,000 participants aged 35-75 as they moved through different employment statuses.

Their findings revealed that the highest levels of chronic stress were among adults who moved from unemployment into poor-quality work. By contrast, those who moved from unemployment into a good-quality job had the lowest levels of stress.

“Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed,” said Tarani Chandola, professor of medical sociology at the University of Manchester and the paper’s lead author. “Just as good work is good for health, we must also remember that poor-quality work can be detrimental for health.”

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, told People Management: “The popular mantra is that work is better for you than not working and on balance this is true. But it has to be good work.

“If the work is not good, it is probably just as damaging as being unemployed; being stuck in a job with, for example, a bullying culture and a heavy workload, and being unable to move out of it because of a lack of other opportunities, is bound to damage your mental and emotional wellbeing.”

Cooper warned that health and wellbeing in the workplace could worsen in the near future, as employees grapple with the stresses of greater job insecurity and general economic uncertainty.

“You have to have passion for the wellbeing agenda at the top of organisations, and influence from top HR people,” he said. “There are a lot of HR professionals who are behind the wellbeing agenda in principle, but one problem is that we don’t have enough assertive HR directors who are challenging and influencing those in the C-suite.

“They need to be robust enough and confident enough to take strategic action at the top of organisations – it’s easy for people to say their most valuable resources are their human resources, but it’s another thing to take the necessary steps to support that statement.”

An earlier study by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that young people in temporary jobs are 29 per cent more likely to suffer mental health issues than those in full-time work, while workers who believe they have more than a 50 per cent chance of losing their job are twice as likely to experience mental health problems compared with those who feel secure in their role. A separate study published by PwC in July revealed that one in four workers doubt their organisation takes wellbeing seriously, while Aviva’s 2016 Working Lives report found that almost half of UK workers think their bosses put performance ahead of their health.

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