January 23, 2013 12:03 am

Embattled British workers still smiling

Wages have been frozen or cut and workloads increased, but British workers are still smiling or, at least, counting their blessings.

The government-backed Workplace Employment Relations Survey, conducted in 2011-12, finds that the recession has had a profound impact on workplaces. But despite many painful measures, job satisfaction levels have risen.

According to initial findings published on Wednesday, three-quarters of employees are satisfied with their work, with both their scope for using initiative and their sense of achievement three or four percentage points higher than the last time the survey was conducted in 2004.

The only negative finding in the job satisfaction category was that workers were slightly less happy with their job security.

The study also found that managers are communicating more with employees, training has increased and people have more autonomy.

The research involved interviewing 2,700 managers and 1,000 employee representatives, and more than 20,000 staff completed questionnaires.

One-third of employees had had their wages frozen or cut and 29 per cent saw their workload increase because of the recession. The figures for both measures were higher in the public than in the private sector.

The authors said while these examples of labour market flexibility “obviously are bad news for workers”, they may have helped avert even worse outcomes – only 14 per cent of workplaces had made compulsory redundancies.

“It’s quite possible that some people’s expectations will have adjusted as a result of the recession – in other words, being grateful for being in a job,” said Alex Bryson of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (Niesr), one of the co-authors.

Other findings suggested deeper reasons for job satisfaction. There was a sharp increase in people saying their job made them feel tense, worried or uneasy only “occasionally” or “never”.

“There are signs that working life has improved in a number of respects for those who have been lucky enough to stay in work,” Mr Bryson said.

Improved communication showed up as managers being more likely to hold team briefings to keep staff informed about changes (up from 60 per cent to 66 per cent) and provide information on finances (up from 55 per cent to 61 per cent).

Employees have higher levels of autonomy. There were small increases in the proportions of staff who have “a lot of influence” over how their work is done (from 50 per cent to 52 per cent), the pace of their work (38 per cent to 41 per cent) and their start and finish times (from 26 per cent to 31 per cent.)

However, there may be more job pain on the way. John Philpott, director of the Jobs Economist, a consultancy, warns in a report on Wednesday that it is likely to be at least 2020 before the employment rate – those in work as a share of the working age population – returns to its pre-recession peak.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “As long as our economy fails to grow, wages fail to keep up with prices, job insecurity, redundancies and increased workloads will be the new normal in Britain’s workplaces.”

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