By Alison Woods
The cost of living crisis has taken a significant toll on many UK households. Inflation is currently at 10.1%, although the price rise on individual food and drink items is 20-40%. Energy, petrol and diesel, grocery, and mortgage prices have all gone up, making it difficult for consumers to make ends meet.
This skyrocketing cost of living is particularly strenuous for zero-hour workers, whose work and income is not technically guaranteed from one week to the next. At the same time, many employers are inappropriately using zero hours contracts for work that is in fact quite regular. That means that, even though a worker has been working regular hours for a long period of time, they could suddenly find themselves without work. We would ask employers to have empathy for their staff and strive to ensure that their need for security is met.
Why zero-hours workers take a toll on workers
Uncertainty in zero-hour contracts can be immensely damaging to the well-being of workers. Research from the University of Aberdeen points out that zero-hours workers are largely vulnerable to anxiety, stress, and depression due to financial and social insecurity. Workers are not be always eligible for sick leave. Even where they are eligible for sick pay, the level is so low that it often cannot make up for the loss of income from not working. Unstable work schedules can also lead to inadequate sleep, poor eating habits and relationship or family problems.
Perhaps most alarming is that financial insecurity makes it difficult for workers to turn down job calls even during irregular hours or when exhausted. These could only be aggravated by the rising cost of living.
Planning the future of workspaces with empathy
The argument often-cited by advocates of zero-hours contracts is that the provide flexibility for both employers and workers. However, the flexibility can be heavily skewed in favour of the employer. Employers benefit largely from this as they can adjust staffing to cover absences or sudden fluctuations in workload without having to pay staff when not working or going through procedures for termination. Whilst zero hours workers do, in theory, have the freedom to turn down work, the reality is that when work is insecure, there is a greater motivation to accept work when offered in case it’s not available in the future. Furthermore, some employers often make it clear that it is accepted zero hours workers will accept work when offered.
The World Economic Forum explains that empathy in business yields concrete results. Employees whose well-being is prioritized, report greater engagement and innovation at work, making it an effective business strategy. UK-based talent acquisition and job recruitment solutions provider LHH explains that when promoting mental and physical well-being, it’s important to approach policy formation with a collaborative engagement strategy. This means finding out what conditions can make zero-hours workers most productive and healthy and finding a way to work around that together.
How to improve zero-hours working conditions
Ultimately, critical issues affecting the mental and physical health of zero-hours workers can be addressed by making simple policy changes What we had found is that many workers have worked for years on regular hours that are not guaranteed, When things get tough suddenly, such as during the pandemic and lockdown, zero hours workers suddenly find themselves without an income that they had come to expect.
Employers should be empathetic to this by aspiring for greater income and job security for their workers. Changing the structure of work, for instance, can be largely stabilising. Scheduling shifts two weeks in advance or paying for shifts cancelled by the employer at short notice can eradicate the volatility of zero-hours contracts. This can also leave workers with enough time to prioritise other aspects of their lives. Offering fixed-hours contracts to reflect the actual hours worked can also increase security.
Zero-hours contracts, if implemented correctly, can be largely beneficial to both workers and employers. But where the pitfalls of these jobs occur are in areas lacking empathy. By putting the needs of workers at the centre, employers can ensure that no one working under them would struggle needlessly.
Exclusively written for Zero Hours Justice by Alison Woods, a freelance writer with a passion for helping readers rethink the modern workplace. When she’s not working, she’s probably enjoying a cup of tea with one or two cats on her lap.
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Images can be downloaded from here. Image of Julian Richer should be credited to Gerardo Jaconelli.