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25 Apr 2016

Time to focus on the quality of our jobs, says the OECD

It is not simply about having a job, it is also a matter of the quality of your job. Characteristics of the working environment play a key role in employees' wellbeing with workers in high-strain jobs more likely to develop certain diseases, according to Sandrine Cazes and Anne Saint-Martin from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


Most people spend a substantial part of their time at work, and work for a significant part of their life. Hence jobs people hold is one of the most powerful determinants of people’s quality of life. However, the question is not simply to have a job, it is also a matter of the quality of those jobs.

Challenge of measuring job quality

Despite the importance of the topic, limited attention has been devoted to job quality. This may be partly due to the difficulties of defining and measuring job quality. One of the key contributions of a new OECD project on “measuring and assessing job quality” is to document the various features of job quality that contribute to the well-being of people.

Traditionally, the quality of jobs is associated with the level of earnings and security a job provides. However, a growing body of research shows that the characteristics of ones working environment also play a significant role in an employee’s well-being.

Jobs differ in terms of how much effort they require. Some jobs are very demanding, requiring the worker not only to put in extra hours but also to work at a high speed, and be bound to tight deadlines which can be emotionally draining. These high demand jobs can be stressful and challenging, yet they could also be motivational, stimulating and rewarding.

Conversely, those requiring low effort can be relaxing, but at the same time dull. A balanced workplace where one possesses sufficient resources with respect to the demands of their job is crucial for employee motivation and productivity, and most importantly employee well-being.

The health implications of high pressure jobs

Building on a multidimensional approach to job quality, the OECD’s project focuses on the share and intensity of high-strain jobs across OECD countries, and the implications of these jobs for workers’ well-being.

Evidence from epidemiological studies indicate that workers in high-strain jobs, that is jobs with high demands but with little workplace resources, are more likely to suffer from burnout, to develop musculoskeletal disorders, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and mental health problems.

The list is long, and deserves attention. To take an example, a recent study published by Harvard researchers suggests that women in demanding and stressful jobs have a 38% increased risk of heart disease. Compared with those in low-strain jobs, they have a 67% raised risk of a heart attack. This is worrying as high-strain jobs are relatively widespread.

Workers need more support

A recent OECD study shows that in Europe, 20% of employees report difficult work situations, facing multiple job stressors without adequate support and resources to cope with. And half of these workers in high-strain jobs report that work impairs their health, compared to only 15% for those in low-strain jobs.

This latter group also fare better in terms of mental health. European workers in high strained jobs report the lowest level of job satisfaction and positive emotions, such as feeling cheerful, in good spirit, calm and relaxed, whereas they report the highest level of negative emotions such as stress.

Risk factors such as workplace intimidation and dangerous working conditions are among the most detrimental aspects of poor working conditions on employee well-being. Social support at work, received from the manager or colleagues, make a remarkable difference in employee satisfaction and mental well-being. 

Sandrine Cazes is senior economist and Anne Saint-Martin is economist at OECD. this article is part of a contribution to a quarterly newsletter published by Generali Employee Benefits Network.

This piece was supplied by Generali Employee Benefits Network

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