In Sickness and in Health? Good work – and how to achieve it

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In Sickness and in Health?

Good work - and how to achieve it

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1 Introduction

We spend a lot of our time at work. Typically around one-third of our waking hours are spent working. What we do helps define who we are, where and how well we live - even how long we live.

People not only want to work, they want to work in good jobs that they feel are rewarding. This is not just about decent pay and basic standards of employment. It is about a fulfilling working life, job satisfaction and achieving individual potential. Improving people's working lives not only improves personal well-being, it can also lead to better, more successful organisations.

The idea that we should ensure that people are not only free from injury and ill-health but actually in good physical and mental health is a positive one that puts people at the heart of any discussion of work. Accepting this principle means that we should see the role of both work and society as being not about production or accumulating wealth, but rather about the promotion of the well-being of the individual. As such it is at variance to the current approach of successive governments at both national and European level, which sees work solely in terms of the economic benefits and where economic growth is an end in itself.

The idea of such a thing as 'good work' also moves the debate on from how best to prevent illness to ways of promoting good physical and mental health.

The concept of good work was initially conceived in 1971 when the Swedish Trade Union Confederation called for a debate on working environments and democracy with both government and employers. This was part of a wider 'industrial democracy' movement, but by the 1980s it had been developed into a call for good work. This was led by the Swedish Metal Workers Union and will be expanded on later. More recently the German trade union confederation DGB published its own index of good work.

In the UK there is general agreement that good work is important, but no consensus about how it should be defined, let alone how to achieve it. Some see the argument in terms of ensuring work does not cause ill-health or how to promote good health through work; for others it is more about justice and equality in the workplace. Many commentators will link good work with health, others with well-being or happiness. Before considering what good work is, we have to define what we are talking about.

Good work is not just about ensuring that jobs do not make people ill (although in many cases that would be a big improvement in itself). It is about organising work in a way that actually promotes good physical and mental health. Often this is called well-being. Again this is not a new concept. In 1948 the World Health Organisation defined health as 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'.

More recently the government review, Is work good for your health and well-being?, answered the question by concluding that work was generally good for both physical and mental health and well-being. It said that work should be good work, which is healthy, safe and offers the individual some influence over how work is done and a sense of self-worth. At the same time a consensus statement by the leading professional bodies in healthcare said: 'Good work also rewards the individual with a greater sense of self-worth and has beneficial effects on social functioning.'

Briefing
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