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Having a job contributes to well-being

The next sections explore the role work plays for our well-being, why having a job is better than not having a job and why it is important to have what is called a 'good job'.

But before going into more detail we should keep in mind a more general relation between well-being at work (job satisfaction) and life satisfaction as a whole. Job satisfaction is correlated with the more global measure of life satisfaction in general. Both influence each other, but the effect of life satisfaction on job satisfaction seems to be larger than vice versa.

Life satisfaction in itself is influenced by demographic factors such as income, age, education and social class but those factors are not the main contributors to well-being. Stronger sources of happiness are supportive relationships (e.g. marriage), employment, occupational status, leisure activities, and the “competencies” of health and social skills (Kahneman et al., 1999). This data is both, a strong case for promoting and improving well-being at work but also for reminding ourselves of the importance and value of other areas such as personal relationships and leisure activities.

Work as contributing to well-being
Many studies have shown that being in work positively contributes to subjective well-being. A core set of factors has been shown to be associated with subjective well-being: besides gender, age, family status, health status, income and social capital our employment status is one of the most important factors (see e.g. Scottish Social Value Survey).

Unemployed people have much lower levels of subjective well-being than those employed. This is in part because work has effects on many other variables that influence well-being. Layard describes unemployment as ‘disastrous’ because in addition to reducing a person’s income it ‘reduces happiness directly by destroying the self-respect and social relationships created by work’ (Layard, 2004).

This has also been shown in the Scottish Social Values Survey: the employment status was a key factor associated with the other four subjective well-being measures (life satisfaction, happiness, standard of living and family).

A study, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (Waddel & Burton, 2006) found extensive scientific evidence of the positive effects work has on physical and mental health and well-being. Worklessness on the contrary is associated with poorer physical and mental health and lower well-being. Work can also be therapeutic and can reverse the adverse health effects of unemployment. That is true for healthy people of working age, for many disabled people, for most people with common health problems and for social security beneficiaries.

Some key findings summarized:

  • Employment is generally the most important means of obtaining adequate economic  resources, which are essential for material well-being and full participation in today’s society;
  • Work meets important psychosocial needs in societies where employment is the norm;
  • Work is central to individual identity, social roles and social status;
  • Employment and socio-economic status are the main drivers of social gradients in physical and mental health and mortality;
  • Various physical and psychosocial aspects of work can also be hazards and pose a risk to health.

There are also some provisos that must be taken into account, which is the nature and quality of work and its social context (jobs should be safe and accommodating). But overall, the beneficial effects of work outweigh the risks of work, and are greater than the harmful effects of long-term unemployment or prolonged sickness absence.

What can be learned from this so far is that as a general rule it is beneficial for a society to have as many people in work (and out of incapacity benefits) as possible, because work contributes to their well-being.

At a societal level it is therefore worthwhile to do two things:

  • For those who are in work: workplaces promoting health and well-being should be designed. As we spend 60% of our waking time at our workplace it can be a key setting for improving people`s health and well-being and must be a place without hazards contributing to ill-health, including physical and mental ill-health.
  • For those out of work: due to ill-health employers need arrangements to enable an early return to productive employment, accelerating where possible, but never compromising, the individuals` recovery. Patients should generally be supported to remain in or return to work.


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