If anyone is asked that question, it is tempting to assume that the most common answer would be no. There have always been exceptions and it is difficult to believe that Premier League footballers do not enjoy their jobs or the rewards that come with it. However, even amongst this footballing elite, we hear stories of mental health issues and problems around various addictions. For people labelled “traditional British working class” an admission that they enjoyed their jobs could still induce looks of amazement from their colleagues.

The world of work is very different now compared to what it was even as recently as ten years ago. According to some commentators, UK workers are often low paid and in uncertain employment doing jobs that do not meet the definitions of “good work”. Yet, according to recently published research from the Resolution Foundation, employee satisfaction is still relatively high in the UK at 55% which is slightly down from around 60% in the early 1990s.

It is interesting, however, that work has become more stressful for employees in recent decades. The report concludes that the proportion of workers who find their jobs are "always" or "often" stressful is 38% which is 8% more than in the early 1990’s. It is higher, at 41%, for skilled manual workers. British workers also report that the value of their work to society and their own career prospects has improved in the last 30 years. For example, 80% say their job helps others and 85% are proud to work for their employer. As such, it is a reasonable conclusion to come to that the huge transformation of workplaces in recent years has not made jobs worse overall for employees.

However, if the data is examined more closely, the new report also concludes that, for the top half of earners, job satisfaction has remained unchanged in recent decades. For the lowest earners, however, it is quoted that they have lost their "job satisfaction premium" and had enjoyed their jobs far more than the rest of the workforce three decades ago. The report attributes this to changes in the structure of the economy and equates fluctuation in job satisfaction with job security rising and falling. It concludes that slower wage growth since the last financial crisis may have prevented a stronger rise in satisfaction.

The large increase in self-employment over the last 10 years could be a factor in these results despite the gig economy and zero-hour contracts attracting negative headlines. Matthew Taylor who headed the Government's review into modern working practices previously stated that "we exaggerate the growth of precarious employment. Most gig workers say they enjoy gig working and that it suits them.” Despite Taylor’s robust research and analysis, many disagreed with or were uncomfortable with that conclusion.

In many ways, that illustrates the fundamental problem with statistics and any conclusions drawn from their analysis. The world of work is far more complex than it has been in the past and linear narratives of good jobs and bad jobs no longer apply in the same way as before. Older workers for example appear to value job security more than younger people who are new to the workplace. Younger workers appear to pay more attention to an organisation’s values and ethics than previous generations. Although these are huge generalisations they do indicate the greater complexity that surrounds the measurement of employee engagement and job satisfaction.

These new findings are a stark contrast to the research published by Perkbox in 2019. They stated that 61% of UK staff were disengaged and that this was costing the UK economy £340 billion every year in lost training and recruitment costs, sick days, productivity, creativity and innovation. That indicated a huge leap from the £26 billion cost of disengagement identified by various sources in 2011. There are so many different factors that go into the equation, it is not surprising that such a change has been identified in only two years between different researchers.   

It is difficult to argue that either Brexit or the Covid pandemic can fully explain these sharp differences in such a short space of time. They must be factors in these results but the real explanation might be simpler than anyone thinks. The contrast in overall satisfaction between higher paid workers and their lower paid counterparts seems to indicate that, despite many other factors coming in to play, the idea of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is as relevant now has it has been in past times.

Employee voice and involvement, flexible working, the quality of work, ethics and values all play a huge role in any employees’ judgement on how engaged and productive they feel. This report, however, may be valuable in ensuring that employers do not forget that other basic measurement of pay, terms and conditions. The effects of the pandemic on many organisations means that this will be a major challenge for organisations across the UK, but it is one that cannot be ignored if the costs of disengagement outweigh the savings that these organisations may have to make. 

Moreover, the so-called “great resignation” that is being talked about and the growing list of vacancies in logistics and other key sectors strongly suggests that this needs to go to the top of the agenda. If organisations do not address this, even in these most difficult times, some might be left without a functioning workforce.

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA