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Sir Brendan Barber: This is the modern world of work (and we need to respond quickly)

Friday 01 June 2018

There were some great messages coming out of mental health awareness week last month and it made me wonder: if your workplace was a person, would you say it was in good health?

Acas Chair Brendan Barber blog Sir Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is Acas' Chair, joining in January 2014. Previously Sir Brendan was the TUC General Secretary (2003 to 2012) and sat on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (1995 to 2004). Sir Brendan was knighted in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to employment relations.

Is your work good for you?

This is essentially the nub of the debate around good work and good workplaces: what are the factors that make work good for people - which, in turn, makes work good for business and for the economy?

In the work context, we know some of the risks to our mental health (pdf icon The Management of Mental Health at Work [601kb]) - such as poorly managed organisational change, work intensification and an absence of understanding or support for what you are going through.

What makes work bad for us will also come as no surprise - although no less shocking when we hear about some of the worst examples. A concerning article by Sarah O'Conner in the FT recently described some of the 'dark industries' that would be more suited to working life in the nineteenth century. She found that workers in the clothing industry in Leicester were often paid half the National Minimum Wage and wellbeing was less about supporting people's work-life balance than avoiding the wires dangling from the ceiling.

Matthew Taylor's review of modern employment practices last year listed six 'foundations of quality work':

  • wages (and satisfaction with pay)
  • employment quality (about feeling secure and having working hours that suit you)
  • education and training (so you can develop and progress)
  • working conditions (job autonomy is critical here)
  • work-life balance (including flexible working)
  • consultative participation and collective representation ('employee voice').

If our mental health is helped by having a safe and secure home, loving and supportive relationships and meaningful activity that rewards and develops us, then what does this tell us about the modern employment relationship and how it can either nourish or thwart us?

The challenge of the atypical

Policymakers tend to try and solve most problems at work through a combination of carrot (explaining the benefits of treating people more fairly) and stick (introducing sanctions if they fail to treat people according to basic legal standards).

The recent report by David Metcalf, Director of Labour Market Enforcement, set out his strategy for strengthening the sanctions and improving the level of awareness around employment law. Acas has an important role to play here and will certainly be looking at what we can do to work more closely with the three enforcement agencies in the future. But there are two really big challenges to the current way we try to balance regulation and influence to drive behavioural change at work.

  1. The 'dark industries' referred to by Sarah O'Connor illustrate in stark terms that some organisations' interest in very short-term profit means they can be prepared to take the risk of sanctions (and even build it into their business plans). These are often responding to market pressure to produce cheaper and cheaper goods - something we can all feed in to as consumers. This issue of short-termism - in contrast to an approach that sees the business benefits of investing in people and the quality of work on offer in an organisation - has been highlighted in Acas' analysis (pdf icon Building Productivity in the UK [644kb]) of the causes of the UK 'productivity problem'.
  2. The 'gig economy' that has come under the spotlight so much in recent months may still only represent a tiny minority of UK jobs, but does it point to the future? If so, then without an employment relationship between an employee and a manager or a 'workplace' as such, every indicator of quality work may be up for grabs. Some of the absolute cornerstones of traditional employment relationships, such as representation and consultation, may have to re-invent themselves in a new environment.

The moral argument for taking the high(er) road

The good news is that the debate on how we should respond to these challenges isn't just taking place among policy analysts behind closed doors in Whitehall. Thanks in part to the Taylor Review, there's a much wider interest in the question of 'good work'. The Government has just closed its consultations on four key aspects of modern employment practice, aimed at protecting the most vulnerable and improving clarity and understanding for all.

Taylor actually talked about "all work in the UK economy" being "fair and decent", so there is a strong moral argument for keeping the debate going about what we expect from work and how the 'foundations of quality work' can be safeguarded as we move into ever more diverse contractual arrangements.

Among the many specific issues under consultation, some key points Acas has made to the government include our recommendations that:

  • all workers should have a right to a written statement from day one because it will help increase awareness of rights and responsibilities whatever the type of contract
  • agency workers should have a 'key facts' page so they can make a more informed choice about their working arrangements
  • acas should work with the government and other stakeholders to promote greater awareness of employment rights amongst employers and workers
  • information and consultation arrangements are so important to good employment relations that we need a consensus, not just on thresholds for activating such arrangements in an organisation, but also on the core principles that can support arrangements for voice that are effective and sustainable.

David Metcalf makes an interesting proposal that new migrants to the UK should get information on how to contact Acas. Perhaps our main challenge in the months ahead is to reach those individuals, organisations and areas of the economy in most need of practical advice and support. It's not just 'time to talk' about our mental health, it's time to talk about our employment rights and responsibilities, employment relations and why good work benefits us all.

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