Job quality matters more to mental health than the number of hours worked in a week, an academic study has found, with good work mitigating the impact of underemployment.
The research, conducted by a coalition of universities, found factors including feeling that work is meaningful, having good workplace relationships and having enough resources and time to complete work were the most important factors in determining employee wellbeing.
Researchers also found that the positive effects of these factors were similar regardless of whether individuals worked full time or just two days a week, suggesting working just a few hours in a high-quality job was enough to support good mental health.
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However, this was not to say that shorter working weeks were a panacea for wellbeing.
The report cautioned that the current debate “over-emphasised that reduced quantity of working would result in better mental health of employees and address other social problems”, when in fact it was these measures of work quality that were more important.
In particular, it noted that a compressed week – where employees work the same number of hours over fewer days – could “lead to higher work intensity or a harsher social environment” if not managed correctly.
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It also found that jobs that offered more job control and better job prospects mitigated the negative impacts of underemployment on wellbeing, which it said suggested that any debate about reducing the working week “must integrate the job quality into considerations of the future of work”.
Dr Senhu Wang, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the report, said the research suggested there was no such thing as an optimum number of working hours for wellbeing.
“Instead, doing meaningful and useful work, having a positive relationship with colleagues and low work intensity are particularly important for employees’ mental health,” she said.
Dr Daiga Kamerade, reader in work and wellbeing at the University of Salford, added that creating “more high-quality, shorter-hour jobs” would be an efficient way to reduce unemployment and protect mental health as the UK looks to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.
“Debates on a shorter working week must also consider how we can protect and improve the quality of jobs on offer in the future,” she said.
The research used data from the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey and was carried out by a group of universities including the National University of Singapore, the University of Salford, the University of Cambridge and the University of Leeds. It was funded by Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust.