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We need to talk about work

This week Joseph Perry and I have run our strategic employment relations network and begun preparing for our third development programme later this month. We have also been talking to people with a range of different perspectives on the world of work about exciting events in 2024. From these discussions I am convinced that we have some big challenges facing us which we are all keen to talk about further.

Sometimes this can feel exciting but I admit to feeling some despondency. There are still strikes in the public and private sectors which the Government is just ignoring in their patch. Strikes are visible but usually the tip of the iceberg – its what is going on underneath that is as fascinating. What I am hearing is the world of work is increasing characterised by feelings of mistrust, anger, resentment, frustration or total lack of engagement from employees and their representatives.

Then I read a summary of the World Values Survey – one of the largest and most widely used academic social surveys in the world, which has run since 1981. According to the study of 24 countries, Britons are less likely than people from elsewhere to place importance on work. Increasingly, they also no longer believe that hard work brings a better life.

Prof Bobby Duffy, the director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London summarises the findings as reflecting a growing sense that the social contract is broken. “It’s definitely true that the UK is not in a good place compared with other countries on both average income levels and inequality in income”. He goes on to say, “both are likely important in perceptions of whether work is worth it. When absolute incomes are stuck and people feel the dice is loaded against them while others get ahead, even if they work hard, then the motivation to work is going to be affected.”

There is so much to debate in here but I admit to finding it a little bit depressing. Work isn’t the most important thing in our lives and I have been guilty of forgetting that at points in my career when work took over my life. So, getting a balance, if you can, seems sensible. But, we do need to look at what is going on in organisations if employees, particularly younger workers, feel a lack of motivation and a lack of fairness in the workplace.

Employees want and need a voice at work and employers need to listen. Maybe some employees just want to do their job and go home. Either way, employers need to find a way of giving employees a genuine say in what happens to them at work and how they do their jobs and create an environment that gives people a sense of purpose and a sense of worth. There are so many different ways to increase participation or voice or whatever you want to call it – via unions, with employee representatives, with employee networks.

Whatever method is used, we need to talk about the big issues. Sometimes it feels we are scared to talk about pay gaps, economic inequality, in-work poverty, lack of worker participation and how these issues leave people feeling at work. We start to stray into political areas and that makes everyone uncomfortable. But if we don’t talk about them, the resentment builds up and eventually – as Professor Duffy says - the social contract is broken and this will be very hard to repair.



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