Monday, June 17, 2024

Job quality: a sine qua non, not just nice to have

Must read

Elevating job quality by resourcing workers better is pivotal to addressing today’s workplace and societal challenges.

Burnt out: the highest proportion of ‘strained’ jobs is in health (Ground Picture /

The pandemic made us reassess many aspects of our working lives. But has it changed the way we think about job quality—its role in ensuring a good working life and, indeed, a good life in general? Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Telephone Survey (EWCTS), a representative survey of Europe’s workers conducted in 2021, provides some answers.

Pay, working conditions, autonomy, flexibility and intrinsic rewards all play a role in job quality. But the interdependencies among the various elements also count.

For example, the feeling of doing something useful is important, but if workers cannot earn enough to make ends meet they will demand better pay, as attested by the recent waves of strikes by health and care workers in Europe. Then again, high pay is no guarantee of a high-quality job. If a large salary is combined with long working hours or work intensity that leaves a person too exhausted to deal with household chores or care responsibilities at the end of the working day, a well-paid job is not necessarily a good-quality job.


Job quality is thus inherently multidimensional. It is determined by characteristics of work and employment with a proven relationship to health and wellbeing. We spend a lot of time in work and during this time, at minimum, we should not come to harm.

Demands and resources

While the concept of job quality is quite simple—characteristics of work that protect and promote health and wellbeing ensure good job quality, while those that erode it contribute to poor quality—it has not always been easy to measure. In the recent EWCTS, Eurofound used the concept of ‘job strain’ to identify and assess inferior job quality which puts workers’ health and wellbeing at risk.

Become a Social Europe Member

Support independent publishing and progressive ideas by becoming a Social Europe member for less than 5 Euro per month. Your support makes all the difference!

Click here to become a member

The underlying idea is intuitive: in our jobs, we are confronted by demands that require an effort on our part. Demands can be physical—such as being exposed to noise or having to lift heavy items or people—or psychological, such as being in disturbing situations or experiencing discrimination. They can be temporal, as with long working hours or working at night. They can be intense, for instance when we have to work very quickly with tight deadlines or have emotionally challenging work. They can also be linked to insecurity in our jobs.

As workers, we also have resources at our disposal from which we may benefit. These include the support of colleagues or supervisors, flexible working-time arrangements which make it easier to combine work and non-work commitments, autonomy in our tasks, the possibility of learning new things, opportunities to advance our careers or to use our skills, or recognition of our work.

The combination of negative and positive attributes determines how good a job is. A job with more demands than resources is a ‘strained job’, whereas one where the available resources outnumber the demands is a ‘resourced job’.

Not sustainable

Among EWCTS respondents, 70 per cent were in resourced jobs (Figure 1). That leaves, however, almost one-third of workers in strained jobs. For those in extremely strained jobs, the demands were more than double the resources. A labour force of which one-third is in a strained job is simply not sustainable—not only for the workers themselves but also for the societies in which they live.

Figure 1: distribution of job quality in the EU across six categories (%)

job qualityjob quality

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the context of 2021, the highest share of strained—and extremely strained—jobs was in health (Figure 2). Financial services had the highest share of resourced jobs.

Figure 2: job quality index by sector, EU27 (%)

job qualityjob quality

The EWCTS also collected information on workers’ health and wellbeing, work-life balance, engagement at work, trust and co-operation. Linking these to job strain, the results are sobering. For instance, workers’ wellbeing scores are about one-third lower for those in extremely strained jobs than for those in highly resourced jobs (Figure 3).

Figure 3: job quality and workers’ scores on a wellbeing index (0-100)

job qualityjob quality

Or take health. There is a clear link to the build-up of health problems such as backache, headaches and limb pain, physical and emotional exhaustion or the risk of depression: the more strained the job, the higher the share of workers reporting these negative outcomes (Figure 4).

Figure 4: job quality index by health-related indicators, EU27 (%)

job qualityjob quality

These insights go deeper than the intuitive. Beyond poor health, job strain is associated with lower engagement at work, weaker trust, poorer work-life balance and less ability to make ends meet—the very factors that influence workers’ willingness and ability to enter the labour market and the length of their stay in work.

Positive ingredients

Good health, high engagement, financial sustainability, work-life balance and a favourable social climate support people in participating and remaining in work throughout a productive and extended working life. This is a sine qua non in the face of demographic ageing and labour shortages in many critical sectors and occupations, including health and care. The same mix of crucial positive ingredients will support the workforce in meeting the challenges of the twin transition to a digital, decarbonised economy and society.

There are, however, many routes to improving job quality. The focus can be on reducing job demands—making jobs less physically and psychologically exhausting and more secure, while keeping work intensity in check. But there is also the option of increasing job resources by increasing workers’ autonomy, giving workers a voice in organisational decision-making and ensuring that workers get the recognition they deserve.

There is thus plenty of scope for decision-makers at different levels to take action, through legislation, social dialogue and collective bargaining, to change workplace practices and enhance job quality.

Barbara Gerstenberger is head of the working-life unit at Eurofound, co-ordinating the research teams investigating job quality in Europe, based on the European Working Conditions Survey, and industrial relations in the European Union.

Latest article