What is Worker Well-Being?

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The well-being of workers has long been an important issue. As industrialization became widespread in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, early exposés by Friedrich Engels and Henry Mayhew, novels by Charles Dickens and Émile Zola, the photography of Lewis Hines, and diverse secular and religious reform movements focused attention on poverty wages and dangerous working conditions The academic field of industrial relations was born out of a deep unease with imbalances in the employment relationship that led to exploitative wages and working hours, arbitrary supervisory methods, and frequent industrial accidents. Concerns with worker well-being similarly underlie the early theorizing of Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, and others regarding the alienation of workers from their work, Max Weber's work on the repressive nature of bureaucracies, and Henri de Man's search for factors that enabled or prevented workers from fulfilling a variety of human needs such as activity, creation, and self-worth.

Fast forward to today, and many scholars, policymakers, advocates, and business leaders again embrace the importance of worker well-being. Once again, modern exposés such as Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickeled and Dimed illustrate the low pay, long working hours, and hazardous working conditions endured by some workers. But the scholarly work on worker well-being frequently adopts very different perspectives on how to define and measure worker well-being, and therefore comes to very different conclusions about whether well-being needs improving, and, if so, how to improve it. For some, worker well-being is a subjective concept based on workers' attitudinal evaluations of their work situations; for others, worker well-being is an objective issue evaluated against specific criteria. To make things even worse, studies from either approach frequently focus narrowly on specific aspects of well-being, such as physical health, psychological health, job characteristics, employee voice, pay and benefits, or economic insecurity.

David Spencer (University of Leeds) and I have just finished a paper ("Toward an Integrated and Interdisciplinary Approach to Worker Well-Being") in which we instead argue for an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to worker well-being. When real people work, their work consists of multiple aspects. Individuals in paid jobs likely experience elements of the economic concept of disutility when their work is stressful and conflicts with desires for more leisured pursuits. But also experience elements of the psychological concept of fulfillment when their work brings psychological rewards or pain when their work is experienced as arduous and unfulfilling, of identity creation and affirmation (either positive or negative), and perhaps sometimes elements of caring or serving others. Unpaid homemakers whose work involves a lot of caring responsibilities also experience disutility as some features of caring are stressful and take time away from valued leisured pursuits, fulfillment from the intrinsic rewards of caring for others, and aspects of identity development.

We therefore outline a broad approach to thinking about worker well-being that includes the following major dimensions: Pay and Benefits (e.g., an adequate income and conomic security); Safety, Health, and Body Work (e.g., protection against workplace hazards and unwanted intimacy); Psychological and Mental Health (e.g., positive levels of job satisfaction and avoidance of undue stress); Skill and Creativity (e.g., opportunities for skill development); Autonomy over Work (e.g., opportunities to control how and what work is done); Freedom, and Voice (e.g., freedom to quit, occupational choice, ability to form independent labor unions); Governance and Ownership (e.g., opportunities to participate in how work is managed); Nondiscrimination and Respect (e.g., nondiscrimination protections); Caring (e.g., opportunities for directly caring for others and avoidance of conflicts that prevent the fulfillment of caring responsibilities); and Serving Others (e.g., opportunities for directly serving others and avoidance of conflicts that interfere with ability to serve others). For more details, see our paper.

We hope that this spurs broader approaches to worker well-being that adequately reflect the sheer diversity of the roles of work in our lives, as well as the tremendous importance of work for individuals and the communities in which they live.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.