Low earners lose ‘job satisfaction premium’ over higher paid staff, report finds

20 Sep 2021 By Francis Churchill

Experts say giving lower earners ‘a greater say over the work they do’ is key to improving wellbeing

Low earners have lost the ‘job satisfaction premium’ they previously enjoyed over higher earners, a study has found, with experts urging employers to give autonomy back to low-paid workers.

A report from the Economy 2030 Inquiry, which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that while people’s general job satisfaction remained relatively stable over the last 30 years, lower earners, who previously tended to have higher levels of job satisfaction, have since lost this lead.

In 1991-92, almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of low earners reported high job satisfaction, compared to less than three in five (59 per cent) high-paid employees. However, today that figure stands at below 60 per cent among both groups. 

The report said this sharp deterioration in job satisfaction levels among low-paid workers was likely driven by rising levels of work intensity and stress, as well as falling levels of control over their work.

While all workers have been affected by these trends, the report said low earners had been particularly exposed to them.

The report also found the percentage of employees who said they work ‘at very high speed’ for most of the time has nearly doubled over the last three decades, rising from 23 per cent to 45 per cent between 1992 and 2017.

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Similarly, there has been a sharp decline in autonomy at work, particularly among lower earners. The percentage of low-paid employees who agreed that they have a say over the decisions that change how their work is done fell from 44 to 27 per cent between 1992 and 2017.

Over the same period, the proportion of employees who say they feel ‘used up at the end of the day’ increased from 20 to 29 per cent, with an even bigger increase seen among female workers, while between 1989 to 2015 the number of workers reporting they were stressed at work increased from 30 to 38 per cent.

Krishan Shah, researcher at the Resolution Foundation and one of the report’s authors, said work has become more intense and stressful in recent decades. “This has had a ‘levelling down’ effect across Britain’s workplaces, with low earners losing the ‘job satisfaction premium’ they once enjoyed over higher paid staff,” he said.

“As Britain edges towards a post-pandemic economy, we need to focus more on these wider measures of job satisfaction if we’re to boost workers’ wellbeing as well as their pay. Low earners in particular need to have a greater say over the work they do.”

The report was not all bad news, however, and contrary to the popular belief that the economy has seen a rise in ‘worthless’ jobs over the last 30 years, there has actually been an increase in the proportion of employees who say their work is helpful to others. This increased from 67 per cent in 1989 to 79 per cent in 2015.

Similarly, there has been an increase in the proportion of people who say their work offers them prospects for advancement, up from 22 per cent to 35 per cent over the same period, while the number of people who say they are proud of where they work has increased from 77 per cent to 86 per cent.

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