How precarious work can affect your mental and physical health
Many worry about the cost of visiting a GP and paying for antibiotics – new report
From left: Authors of the report Alicja Bobek and Sinéad Pembroke with Senator Alice Mary Higgins, centre, at the launch of ‘Living With Uncertainty: The Social Implications of Precious Work’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Dr Mary Murphy during the launch of ‘Living With Uncertainty: The Social Implications of Precious Work’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The impact of precarious work on people’s mental health, physical wellbeing, and on their capacity to secure housing and start families, are set out in a groundbreaking report published on Thursday.
Precarious work, identified as part-time work with variable hours, so-called “if-and-when” contracts, temporary work, and solo-self employment (also known as “bogus self-employment”) is increasing across the labour force, according to the report, Living With Uncertainty.
It is now widespread in healthcare, education, archaeology, transport and storage, the postal sector, the arts, media and construction, as well as in retail, catering, hairdressing, hotel work, bar work and contract work such as cleaning and security, it says.
Produced jointly by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the trade-union backed think-tank Tasc, the report draws on Central Statistics Office and quarterly national household survey data, and on 40 “in-depth, qualitative interviews” with people who worked or had worked in precarious work.
Participants said the unpredictability of precarious work affected them physically and mentally, often making them ill. Many, however, “could not afford” to be ill, as taking time off meant not being paid.
Many worried about the cost of visiting a GP and paying for antibiotics when they didn’t know how much they would earn the following week.
One said: “If you had a sick day, on average your wages would be down about 70 or 80 quid . . . So it’s a pretty big chunk of change to be missing from your weekly wages.”
Just six of the 40 interviewees had mortgages and three of these had partners in secure employment. “This is not surprising considering that people working precariously are generally excluded from submitting a mortgage application,” says the report.
Others were unable to secure private rented accommodation as landlords looked for employer references confirming they had secure employment.
And while most were in private rented accommodation, some of them sharing, the majority who shared rented accommodation “did so because they could not afford to rent independently”.
“Luck” was a theme in interviews about housing, whether that was “luck” that they had a good relationship with the landlord, “luck” that they found a rental through social connections, or “luck” their rent was manageable.
“It could be argued this type of [HOUSING]insecurity . . . is not unique to precarious workers. However, the effects are amplified for people doing precarious work because of their work and pay insecurities.”
Some had to move back to the family home, or had been unable to move out. Eva, a 29-year-old retail worker, said she would “love to move out” of her parents’ home. “I would have done years ago if I was getting decent money . . . I mean to be able to live, you wouldn’t be able to live if you’re only working a day or two for €9.15 an hour.”
Being able to have children, and the difficulties of working around children’s needs, were huge issues, particularly for women.
A woman in her mid-30s and working as a lecturer on fixed-term contracts said: “If my career continues the way it is, on fixed-term contracts, I won’t be able to have a child, I won’t be able to buy a house. So that creates a worry. I’m at a really pivotal age in my life.”
Childcare was an issue for participants with children, with many working different hours day to day. Finding flexible childcare was problematic and, for some, impossible, meaning they had to give up work altogether.
Unpredictable hours have an impact on children too. Some said their children often did not know when or if they would see their parents each day.
The report calls for legislation to ensure more security for those on contract work, but warns “the state of precarity is not likely to go away”.
It was a broader social phenomenon, affecting people’s lives to make not only their jobs insecure, but their housing, health and family life insecure also.
“Precarity . . . is not just a labour market issue but the culmination of a broader conservative offensive that began with the neo-liberal turn of the 1980s . . . Legislators will have to consider universal healthcare and childcare services as well as increasing the availability of social housing” to address the worst impacts of precarious work.
Voices of precarious workers:
“I don’t really see anybody to be honest. I’ve lost a lot of friends which is also hard because I have no support socially, and I think that has fed into my depression...And I think a lot of that is due to our situation, and not being able to afford to go and do things with people.” - Noel, homecare assistant
“You might have a good pay cheque coming in but you know that you’re only so many pay-cheques from not being able to pay your rent, especially when you’re doing precarious work. There were a few times when I just got really anxious and it was really starting to take control of me.” - Sara, archaeologist
“I remember the feeling of ‘shit what am I going to do? I don’t have enough money to do me for the next week’. I didn’t even have €40 a week to buy food. My limit was €40 a week, so it came donw to one of the other: food or an inhaler.” - Agnes, early-years educator
“The house is really on the ‘long finger. We just can’t imagine it. I would never get a mortgage because a commercial company in archaeology will not say you have a stable and secure employment with them...So unless your company is willing to lie..to say you are employed for ever, you might get a mortgage.” - Elaine, commercial archaeologist
“All my friends have started having now and when I’m around them I’m like ‘oh my God I want a baby’. But I don’t know, I find it difficult to manage my own life so I don’t know if it’s a good idea to have a child in such an unstable situation.” - Claire, artist
“I’m ten years there and I have literally never worked the same hours, the same days...My children, especially when they were younger...you’d have to get someone to collect them from school and then they’d get their dinner at 5 o’clock; sometimes they weren’t getting it until I’d get home at 9; sometimes they weren’t getting it at all. That’s the way it was.. It is like that for a lot of people. It is very, very wrong.” - Zoe, lone parent in retail work