The value of work

It turns out that pay isn't everything, and it's time we starting thinking differently about the contributions made through different sorts of employment

Tom Williams

Britain loves to work. The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that the total number of hours worked by people across the UK every week is 1.01 billion. That's over 110,000 years.

What's more, we seem to be working harder than ever before. Research by the TUC last year found that nearly 3.5 million people are now working more than a 48-hour week - a 15 per cent increase since 2010.

But what does this work - all those hours of sitting at a desk or behind a shop counter - actually contribute to the good of our society? And what does it do for own personal happiness?

"Individuals still tend to associate their value in the labour market with what we get paid"?, says Juliet Michaelson, Associate Director for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

Jobs that are seen to create wealth, such as banking, are rewarded handsomely. Furthermore, the more valuable, high- skilled jobs in a company are those at the top with progression at work resulting in more pay. But NEF believes our income shouldn't be everything when determining a job's value. Indeed, for starters, our wellbeing at work and job satisfaction seems to bear little relation to our wage.

Last year, the Cabinet Office released research that looked at the relationship between different jobs and the levels of satisfaction for the people in those jobs. Top of the list, despite a mean income of just ?20,568, was the clergy. CEOs came second with a mean income of ?117,700, but also in the top 10 were farmers and hotel managers, who seem just as happy in their roles as CEOs but are paid a fraction of their wages.

Right at the bottom, publicans and debt collectors appear to be the amongst the most unhappy, despite earning wages that are on a par with the men (and women) of the cloth who sit over 270 places above them in the league table.

And pay isn't everything when assessing the value of work to society at large, either.

Back in late 2009, NEF assessed the worth of six different jobs to society. It found that hospital cleaners have a positive worth because they bring infections down and therefore prevent huge costs in the future. In fact, for every ?1 they are paid, NEF estimates that cleaners will create over ?10 in social value. Similarly, the value that waste recycling workers create in ensuring that goods are reused means that, in this sector, for every ?1 of value spent on wages, ?12 will be generated.

In contrast, an advertising executive, whose purpose is to encourage people to consume things they do not need, actually destroys value. The social and environmental damage caused by overconsumption attributable to advertising led NEF to estimate that top advertising executives destroy ?11 for every pound in value they generate. Huge levels of tax avoidance can be attributed to the work of tax accountants, meaning they destroy ?47 of value for every pound they generate. And so on.

For Juliet, the key point behind the research is to encourage a cultural shift to get policymakers to think in these terms, and then policies like pay ratios and the living wage will naturally follow. "These questions are not really being asked"?, she says.

"We need to acknowledge that there is a different way of looking at the value of a business and start asking questions about what they are contributing to the health of society.

"We can then use the tax system to encourage or discourage behaviour in business in favour of what has the most value to society as a whole."?

If that happens, many more of us will be able to use the 90,000+ hours worth of work we are estimated to do in a lifetime creating a better society in which to live, rather than just waiting for 5pm to come around again.