Trusting the future

In job satisfaction surveys, hairdressers often come top as the happiest of workers. Looking at this and similar work – plumbers also do well in surveys – it seems that opportunities for ‘emotional labour’, that is what workers can invest of themselves in their work, strongly influences if a job is satisfying or not.

The pleasure of using your hands; listening to people’s life stories; enjoying the highs; commiserating with the lows or sharing a joke can build a sense of wellbeing at work, as well as a commitment to do a good job.

In contrast, discussions about the future of work tend to focus on structures, systems and processes in the name of improved productivity and delivery.

Of course, there is an over-riding economic logic that drives this thinking and new technologies, along with other developments such as flexible contracts, are all opportunities for the logic to gain ever-greater influence over our work, reduce costs and increase value.

On the other side, I think most of us understand that emotional labour is both valuable and takes time.

How we balance these competing demands will determine how ‘satisfied’ we will be at work in the future. It will also play a part in how safe we are, given that poor quality work can lead to stress, reduce alertness and lead to accidents.

The question for the future of work is, therefore, also a question about how we continue to balance these forces. What is the role of regulation and the regulator in the future? Should regulation have any role in preventing large numbers of workers from becoming, effectively, ‘digital slaves’?

If ‘satisfied’ or ‘happier’ workers create more value than their fellow dissatisfied workers, won’t enlightened employers see the business case for nurturing good working conditions and therefore won’t need to rely on regulations at all?

Unavoidably, any discussion in 2018 about the future of health and safety in Great Britain must consider Brexit and reflect on its multidimensional form. There are of course the potential changes to the long list of EU-derived regulations, changes that will very much depend on the ultimate relationship we have with Europe at the end of negotiations.

There are the trade deals that the UK might be able to negotiate with non-EU countries that may align with other international conventions such as those from the International Labour Organisation.

There is a sorely needed public-relations exercise to address our long history of fulminating about Europe and its apparent promotion of burdensome ‘red-tape’, where health and safety is often portrayed as a jobs-destroyer. Research and spotting emerging risks is another area the European Union has been active in, and which will need to be considered, and this is without mentioning the demographic changes or sourcing skilled labour in the future.

Clearly, a discussion now about the future of health and safety must keep a close watch on all this. The British Safety Council will do so in consultation with its members and ensure that our priority remains the safety, health and wellbeing of workers.

There is however another element that should be considered and that is about our changing expectations for job satisfaction. If, as the philosopher Montesquieu once wrote, our “wish to be happier than other people is made difficult for we always believe others to be happier than us”, in recent times we have tended to insist that we should all have work that is a positive source of wellbeing.

This welcome growth in our expectations is probably related to technology: with work occupying more of our lives, our right to pursue a happy life is becoming indistinguishable from our demand for a satisfying job.

Today, with our country deep into a debate on the kind of future it wants, let’s accept that although many jobs can’t be as satisfying as others, we shouldn’t sleep walk into becoming disappointed digital slaves.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council