Study shows ‘quality over quantity’ of work crucial for employee wellbeing

Categories: School of Health and Society

A new study has found that job quality matters more for employees’ mental health than the number of hours that they work. 

Advances in technology and changes in the labour market have led to increasing debate about whether the standard full-time working week (35–40 hours per week) should be replaced by a shorter working week. 

Using 2015 European Working Conditions Survey data, this study by the National University of Singapore, University of Salford, University of Cambridge and University of Leeds, funded by Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust, explores the relationships between job quantity, job quality and employees’ mental health. 

The findings show that the quality of a job matters more than its quantity as measured in hours per week. Most important job quality factors are feeling that your work is meaningful, having good relationships in your workplace and feeling that your work is not too intense (having enough resources and reasonable deadlines for instance). 

The positive effects of these job characteristics are similar for people in short hours jobs (working just two days a week) and full-time work, suggesting that fewer hours of work in a high-quality job is sufficient for employees' mental health.

While there are negative effects if people aren’t able to work as many hours as they would like to (known as under-employment), these negative effects become much smaller in size and non-significant in good quality jobs, especially in jobs with skill discretion and good job prospects. 

Dr Senhu Wang, Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the report, said: “Our results suggest that there is no ‘optimum’ number of working hours at which employees’ mental health is at its highest. Instead, doing meaningful and useful work, having a positive relationship with colleagues and low work intensity are particularly important for employees’ mental health.”

Professor Brendan Burchell of the University of Cambridge, Principal Investigator of the research project, said: “The findings emphasise the continued and crucial importance of job quality. We would suggest that policymakers should pay particular attention to this when addressing the dramatic reduction in total hours of employment in Europe following the Covid-19 crisis.”

Dr Daiga Kamerade, Reader in Work and Wellbeing at the University of Salford, added: “Debates on a shorter working week must also consider how we can protect and improve the quality of jobs on offer on the future. As the Covid-19 recovery continues, creating more high quality, shorter hours jobs could be a more efficient way to reduce unemployment and protect mental health.”

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