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Why employment quality matters

Health associated with different employment arrangements in the contemporary European labour market

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Upset young black guy covering face with hand while working remotely on netbook

Source: Alex Green

In Europe, the end of the 20th century has been characterised by a steady decline of permanent, full-time waged employment. This tendency involved a breakdown of training and promotion ladders, declining job security and a rise in nonstandard forms of employment, such as temporary work, involuntary part-time work and contract work. At the same time, in many European countries, the nature of self-employment seems to have changed, with new types of self-employment – such as solo self-employment, dependent and necessity self-employment – gaining importance. It is often assumed that some of these new, de-standardized employment arrangements are less beneficial and associated with a lack of general health and well-being. However, relatively little research has been carried out that uses a holistic, multidimensional approach for considering the variation of employment arrangements. Furthermore, research rarely approaches the variation within waged and self-employment simultaneously.

In a recent study, published in Work and Occupations, Jessie Gevaert, Karen Van Aerden, Deborah De Moortel and Christophe Vanroelen (Interface Demography, Vrije Universiteit Brussel) shed light on this research gap. The authors use data from the EWCS 2015 (European Working Conditions Survey) to investigate the health associations of different employment arrangements in the contemporary European labour market. In doing so, they use the multidimensional concept of ‘employment quality’ to investigate variation in both the waged employed and self-employed working population.

Their study finds clear evidence for a health gradient according to the quality of employment arrangements, crosscutting the distinction between waged- and self-employment. The authors rearranged survey respondents into groups, based on their similarity on a number of indicators of employment quality (e.g. job security, economic sustainability, working time, skill development, empowerment and worker’ rights/ business magnitude). Particularly noteworthy is that the group of ‘low employment quality’ self-employed (i.e., characterized by having few clients, low income, high insecurity, low skill development and low empowerment) had on average the worst health outcomes. The health scores of these self-employed were (far) worse than those of all other employment arrangements, including those of the ‘low quality’ waged employed (i.e., characterized by temporary contracts with low incomes, low skill development, little representation and voice in the workplace). In contrast, ‘high-road’ solutions toward de-standardisation – defined as  versatile, place- and time-independent work which is usually reserved for high-skilled workers with strong bargaining power on the basis of their desired skill sets – typically presented more favourable relations with health outcomes, both among waged employed and self-employed. This working hours flexibility is often worker-induced, or at least worker-mediated, giving them a strong sense of control over their working life.

The results must raise awareness among policymakers concerning the health risks associated with certain employment niches in the contemporary European labour market. As adaptable and flexible work is usually welcomed by employers, putting policies in place aimed at ensuring good employment quality for nonstandard and flexible workers is a challenging issue. This is particularly difficult for precarious forms of self-employment and requires, amongst other things, a discussion on the role that systems of social and income protection must play to prevent negative health outcomes from insecure or unstable self-employed work.

Author(s) of the original publication
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Jessie Gevaert