Lone working 'is making millions of people ill' says report

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The rise in lone working and the insecurity of increasing numbers of jobs are "making millions of us poorer and ill," says a new report from Christian-based think tank, Theos.

In 'The Ties That Bind' Theos looks at how better work can be created "by paying attention to the social dynamics – the love, even – in our workplaces."

The report, written by ethical entrepreneur Tim Thorlby, looks at evidence around the social and health impacts of the rise in lone working and the growth of insecure work. It argues that a loss of 'mutuality' between the employed and their employers is making millions of people poorer and ill.

Taking inspiration from key principles of Christian economic thinking, Theos suggest that our workplaces could be made happier and healthier.

Director of Theos Chine McDonald writes in her foreword to the report: "It is a forthright critique of work which treats people as means rather than ends, but it is not merely moralising. It points to tangible examples of better practice. Tim Thorlby has himself led a business – Clean for Good – which demonstrates that, even in sectors which seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom, things can be done differently.

"Even as work changes rapidly around us we always have the opportunity to form workplaces that value people and operate justly."

Theos estimates that before the pandemic, 27 per cent of workers worked alone for a substantial proportion of the time. Now, 59 per cent of the workforce works alone for at least some of the week.

While admitting that "lone working can provide real benefits to workers who enjoy a flexibility premium," the Theos report points out that it carries risks. "These risks are highest where little attention is paid to the quality and dignity of working relationships, and where employees are treated as 'out of sight, out of mind'."

The report calls for action to prevent the loss of connection between workers and protect the health of those working in these environments. Employers, say Theos, need to be intentional about building strong worker relationships and robust management processes.

The UK has one of the most flexible labour markets in the developed world, explains the report, and this can deliver benefits, both to individual workers and to the wider economy through higher rates of employment and economic growth.

But there are downsides here too. In the UK today, the Living Wage Foundation estimate that nearly one in five workers – 6.1 million people (19 per cent of all workers) – are in insecure work. Within this, they calculate that more than half (3.4 million, 11 per cent of all workers) are in work that is both insecure and low paid.

Theos points out that nearly one in three (31 per cent) of the UK's self-employed report 'moderate' to 'severe' mental health issues, with younger workers more likely to be affected. This is twice as high as the national average.

A study by the International Labour Organisation found that zero hours contracts were often highly damaging to work-life balance and undermined family life. These contracts were most prevalent amongst the young (under 25), including students, and also older adults with few qualifications.

The Theos report calls for fair hourly pay at or above a real living wage; predictable hours and income which are changed only with fair notice; connection for workers, who should be well managed and supported and feel 'part of the team'; and healthy work, where working supports good physical and mental health.

Theos, part of the British and Foreign Bible Society, believes "that faith, and Christianity in particular, is a force for good in society."

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK and a former communications director with the CofE.