How good is a good job?

What is a measure of a good job is not a common understanding – the EU follows quality of work through at least 3 different indexes[1], employer and employee organizations each have their own[2], ILO follows Decent Work Indicators and OECD has only recently launched its Job Quality Framework. All of the measures above are based on the data from large-scale surveys, most often combining the objective dimensions such as wage levels with employee subjective assessments of the content of their jobs.

The good and the bad of temporary employment
in general and temporary agency work in particular is contested – in job quality indexes it is most often associated with insecurity and low pay while also being promoted as a stepping stone to the labour market for those who would otherwise find it difficult to get a job. In Sweden, general numbers suggest this to be almost a non-issue - 84% of employees work on permanent contracts and most of the 1,5% of the temporary agency workers actually also have permanent agency contracts protected by collective agreements. Even if the job quality in temporary agency sector does tend to be lower than elsewhere in terms of work accidents and skill development[3], the numbers are low and the jobs transitory, thus limiting the negative effects both in space and time in the face of overall high job quality.

However, considering that workplace communities do not consist of groups of employees neatly packed in different compartments but networks of human beings with complex relationships to others, it makes sense to assume that change in nature and prevalence of employment forms has indirect effects. These might be positive - bring in new ideas and creativity that are more likely to emerge in a changing social context, but also have costs – as research shows that most of us still crave stable jobs, the detrimental effects of insecurity in terms of stress are likely to reach further from the insecure employees themselves and spread in organizations and labor markets as a whole.

In Sweden ca 20-30% of workplaces with more than 100 employees use agency workers[4] and the sector is growing fast - from 2009 to 2015 the number of employees hired through temporary work agencies rose by ca 60%[5]. Swedish trade federation for staffing agencies sees even more growth opportunities - while at the moment agency workers make up 10-20% of workforce in an average user firm, this number could go up to half of all employees[6].  The practice thus affects a considerable and growing number of employees, especially when considering a stream of new people at workplace inevitably means changes in task distribution, responsibilities and workplace relations for others.

Results from my research project in the frames of ChangingEmployment illustrate these trends. As organizations aim for workforce flexibility to manage fluctuating demands from product markets, the use of temporary agency work has been normalized, though the organizational borders between employees at the same workplace doing the same jobs are often seen as arbitrary. At the same time both agency workers and employees on ‘standard’ contracts each face their own challenges.

Despite their permanent contracts in Sweden, agency workers still perceive their jobs as insecure, expressing frustration over being excluded by the user firm and forced into competition over assignments as well as the few direct employment contracts.  The permanent employees on standard contracts report even higher stress levels – they face constant competition from newcomers but have little motivation and opportunities for development.  Importantly, they face very high barriers to leave – as temporary work is increasingly used as a strategic choice for recruitment the only way ‘in’ to a new workplace may be through a temporary contract. Adding the Swedish ‘last in, first out’ model, experienced employees have a lot to lose when changing employers - proliferation of flexible work has made stable contracts a rarity to hold on to – even if this is not reflected in workforce surveys yet, it seems to be the case for employees faced with the insecurity of others. Paradoxically then for organizations, the opportunity to use flexible workforce may not have the desired effect of increasing performance and competitiveness but an overworked, demotivated and stressed workforce.

Returning to the beginning and the measures of job quality - looking only at survey data, the workers on most secure and standard contracts would be the ones who report most stress and highest demands in this research while the hopeful newcomers experience higher job quality in comparison. In the long run though, the benefit of hope is likely to disappear, risking the expected outcomes for individuals, organizations as well as labour markets as a whole. How to decide then, how good is a good job?


[1] Laeken indicators (2001), Eurofound’s Job Quality Index (2012) and EMCO’s job quality measure (2010)

[2] BusinessEurope has Job Quality Indicators and European Trade Union Institute uses a Job Quality Index

[3] Håkansson, Isidorsson & Strauss-Raats, 2013

[4] Håkansson & Isidorsson, 2007

[5] Bemanningsföretagen, 2016

[6] DN 27.11.2015 “Bemanningsbranschen fortsätter att växa”

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