Are Zero-Hours Contracts Bad for Your Health?

Pic: Social Psychologist Dr Gary Wood on BBC's Inside-OutFor the BBC Inside-Out  (08/2/2016) programme I was asked this question: are zero-hours contracts bad for our health?  In this blog post I expand on the themes in the programme, offer some examples of pertinent psychological theories, suggestions as to what appropriate research might look like, and offer some links for further information on zero-hours contracts.

The Benefit of Flexibility?

Having worked in a zero-hours contract research job as a student, I valued the flexibility. It operated as a semi-formal arrangement where I had to phone in each week to see what hours I could get. It varied from week to week and often we were at the mercy of a capricious supervisor. For me, it wasn’t so bad. I just had to grin and bear it and grovel a little and in those days students had grants too. I wasn’t going to starve if I couldn’t get as many hours as I needed in one particular week. The work was repetitive and boring and the working conditions wouldn’t exactly meet today’s health and safety guidelines, but It was flexible and many of the people there were really good fun to be around. In many ways it was ideal for my circumstances at the time but for many people it was there many source of income.

The Benefits of Zero-Hours Contracts to Employers

Today’s zero-hours contracts are a very different arrangment. I got paid for the hours I worked and only had to be on-site for those hours. In the modern day versions, employees have had to be on-site and only paid for the hours they are required to work. This means they could spend all day at the work-place and may not earn a penny. Some ’employers’ even though they asserted no liability to provide work still demanded exclusivity clauses that prevented people from seeking gainful employment at other jobs. It’s easy to see how this arrangement benefits the ’employer’ but what are the likely impacts on the employee?

The Psychological Impact of Zero-Hours Contracts

When asked the question ‘are zero-hours contracts bad for our health?’, a number of psychological concepts and theories came to mind:

  • Reactions to stress
  • Martin Seligman and ‘learned helplessness’ (being able to exercise control)
  • Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs (survival and security needs)
  • Barbara Frederickson and the concept of ‘broaden and build’.

There’s a whole body of evidence that demonstrates the links between stress and ill health, including depression and a suppression of the immune system. This happens when stress becomes a chronic (i.e. long-term) condition. If we accept the argument that one of the reasons people go to work is to provide for basic survival needs and security, it’s not difficult to see the detrimental impact of not being able to predict income (and working hours) from one week to the next.  Not being able to effect changes in our circumstances can lead to ‘learned helplessness’, which in turn may lead to depression. To be able to thrive rather than merely survive, we need to be able to build on other emotions and feelings, other than fear. It’s difficult to think aspiration when you can’t even meet basic needs.

Evidence of the Mental Health Impacts of Zero-Hours Contracts

Exploring the Parliament.uk website someone proposed the question (No 19559, December 2015): To ask the Secretary of State for Health, if he will make an assessment of the effects of zero-hour and uncertain hour contracts on the mental health of people holding such contracts.

The reply, from Alistair Burt MP (Department of Health) was short and to the point:

The Department has no plans to make any such assessment. Research undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that, compared to the average employee, zero hours contract workers are just as satisfied with their job (65% versus 63%) and happier with their work-life balance (62% versus 58%).

The research was carried out in 2013. However, the imposition of zero-hours contracts is becoming a increasing trend. It is therefore important to continually monitor the situation. Research findings in 2013 are only  remain valid if the situation remains static. Alistair Burt’s answer focuses on the people who are happy with zero-hours contacts, mainly because they value the flexibility. But what of the people who do not chose to work in this way but are forced into it by necessity?

Research also conducted in 2013 by the Resolution Foundation reaches the opposite conclusion:

[I]t is clear that for the majority of those employed on zero-hours contracts this freedom and choice are more apparent than real. For those individuals who require a minimum number of working hours per week to ensure their family is financially secure or those who, confronting severe power imbalances in the workplace, fear that turning down hours as and when offered will result in future work being withdrawn, life on a zero-hours contract is one of almost permanent uncertainty. For those who have had their hours zeroed down on the basis of a perceived unwillingness to work the hours their employer requires or following the lodging of a workplace complaint, this uncertainty can be coupled with the anxiety that comes from exploitation.

What Further Research Do We Need?

The key factor is whether people choose zero-hours contracts or have these contracts forced upon them. When chosen it is most likely that the flexibility the contracts supports a chosen life style. This is in stark contrast to people who have no choice to accept the contracts in order to survive. Clearly the impacts n mental health are going to be different for each of these cohorts. This is what we should be comparing in research. It’s spurious if not down right dishonest to compare ALL people on zero-hours contracts with ALL people in secure employment.

Of course, not everyone in secure employment is happy with their job. Some people might like to be in a better job. Others might be unhappy because their job does offer the flexibility to support their lifestyle. Also, it wouldn’t be surprising to find people who’d prefer not to work.

So ideally, we’d to consider four groups on a range of mental-health measures:

(i) Zero-hours contacts – satisfied with terms and conditions (by choice);  (ii) zero-hours contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions (or not by choice) ; (iii) Secure contracts – satisfied with terms and conditions, and (iv) Secure contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions.

This would be the simplest model and would not just rely on comparing descriptive statistics, such as percentages. Part of my job involves research design and analysis. Often many people’s idea of research is just comparing percentages. Sadly, it’s what I’m most often asked to do. However this should be only the first phase. The stage that gives us answers is the inferential phase. This is where we can meaningfully talk about statistical significances between the different groups. The very basic research design above should be the absolute minimum. Merely comparing percentages barely qualifies as statistical foreplay.

Conclusion: Are Zero-Hours Contracts Bad for Your Health?

We don’t currently have the research data to answer this question. We can only infer from anecdotal evidence and from what we already know about human psychology. Although we shouldn’t equate common sense with a scientific approach, what seems most likely is that conditions that restrict an individual’s ability to take control over basic survival and security needs is likely to have a detrimental psychological impact.

Considering the political impact, some have argued that zero-hours contracts take us backwards to the working practices in a bygone age. Here’s a summary by Professor Roger Seifert – University of Wolverhampton Business School (for full article see link below):

In the Victorian era there were sweatshops, child labour, few worker rights, and casual employment with no guaranteed income. We view this with horror as a sign of gross inequality, ruthless exploitation, and as bad times in which the rich and powerful were able to maintain their idle privilege through laws, customs, and a deeply religious conservatism where everyone was born into and knew their place.

Scratch the surface of our modern world and we can find signs that progress has not been as spectacular as we like to believe.

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If you enjoyed this post and/or found it useful then please use the ‘like’ and share ‘buttons’. Your comments are also welcome.  

If you are concerned  about or affected by the impact of zero-hours contracts, here are some useful links:

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About Gary Wood

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodDr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

Καλό μήνα! – Have a Good Month – Review and Renew Your Goals

Kalo Mina – Have a Good Month

Being an ardent Grecophile, I have adopted the Greek traditional wish of Καλό μήνα! (Kalo mina) which means ‘Good Month’. Good months don’t just happen of their own accord. It prompts me to consider what would need to happen over the coming month to rate it as a ‘good month’ and what can I do to plan for it and make it happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be any massively significant event or achievement. Good months are made of more good days than bad days. Good days are made of more daily uplifts than daily hassles. A series of small positive outcomes can make your day.

Goal setting with the PAR approach

The (goal-setting) process for having a good month has three parts: P.A.R. that’s:

  • Plan – create an action plan for your goals for the month ahead.
  • Action – Do something each day to achieve your goals
  • Review – Towards the end of the month, review your action plan and consider what adjustments you need to make the following month a good one.

This approach fits with the coaching principle of ‘feedback not failure‘. The prevalent model of goal-setting – the New Year’s resolution – fails because we adopt an all-or-nothing approach. The first stumble is seen as a failure. It is not! It is feedback that our goals action plan needs an adjustment. The first day of the month offers an opportunity to review and renew your goals. It’s always a work in progress.

So consider what progress you will make towards your goals and how this helps to make up a better month, a good month.

 Καλό μήνα!

Links:

Body Language for Confidence?

True inner confidence

I’m often asked the question ‘how can I use body language to more appear confident’. This is based on the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to confidence building. It’s what comes of watching too many reality TV shows where the phoney ‘put on a show’ approach prevails. This is anything but real! Confident people aren’t those who walk into a room and say ‘look at me, look at me’. Confidence is about being comfortable in your own skin and that doesn’t have to be loud and ‘in your face’. True inner confidence is a quiet confidence. Outer displays of brash bravado are primarily based on deceit.

The Opposite of Stress

The ‘fake it to make it’ approach is about creating a false display to mask feelings of anxiety and stress. This is nothing but a cover up! Stress triggers the fight or flight response and narrows our focus to physical and mental (cognitive) processes associated with survival. Putting on a show is a survival strategy. It’s a subtle way of putting up a fight. Inner confidence comes from a different place, that is, the breadth of emotions and experience than are more than just mere survival. To tap into the breadth of human experience, we need the opposite of mere survival and stress. That is, we need to tap into the emotional, physical and mental state in which you will flourish.

Relax and Use Your Strengths

In my confidence building workshops I ask people when they feel most confident. invariably the answers reveal two themes: (i) when doing something relaxing (ii) when using skills and strengths. So rather than consider fake, up-tight, survival driven displays, instead consider what it feels like in your body to be relaxed and ‘laid-back’. Top athletes begin by controlling their own stress/relaxation response. That’s the basis of elite performance. It’s also the basis of true confidence.

Get in Touch With Your Body

The ‘fake it’ approach is about covering up how you truly feel. This is rather like dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead we need to take a deeper (longer term) view, such as taking yoga or Pilates classes, going to the gym, meditation, dance or Zumba classes. Try out a range of things to find something you enjoy. Try acting or improvisation classes. All of these activities will get you more in touch with your body and your feelings. People often say they ‘feel good about themselves’ after these activities. That’s confidence! All of these activities will all help to improve good posture which has positive impact of your general health. Get outside regularly for walks. Research has shown the regular walks in nature boost self-esteem.

Practise deep breathing techniques which help to oxygenate the blood and keep hydrated. Football trainers teach that even if we are dehydrated by a few per cent, it can adversely affect cognitive functioning, that is how we process information. On top of these take a hobby or spend time practising your existing skills (playing to your strengths). Do something you are good at and relish the time you spend doing it.

Body Language Will Take Care of Itself

Decide which of these suggestions you try.  It’s important to give them a good chance to work so try things out as personal experiments for a month or two. It needs something that you do regularly and frequently. At the end of the trial period review the impact on you and your life. When you hit on the thing that’s right for you, the confident body language will take care of itself. As a bonus, you’ll also probably feel a lot fitter too!

Links:

Dealing With Overwhelm – Step by Step

At times in our lives were are faced with a heap of tasks that seems insurmountable. It’s one big amorphous blob of potential misery with not enough hours in the day to tackle it. Invariably this seemingly unmanageable blob of perceived misery is usually made up of smaller blobs of stuff that are reasonably manageable that we’d prefer not to do. Overwhelm is a form of cognitive overload. There’s just too much information to take in. We simply can’t process the enormity of the task and so we don’t bother. We just sit there and look at it. We become transfixed by it. We can’t possibly start anything else with the blob staring us in the face. And so, the blog gets bigger. We protest that we don’t have enough time to do everything and at the same time we don’t do anything at all.

The cognitive overload (overwhelm) distorts our perception of time. The problem is that we don’t have objective data to counter our subjective response. Here’s an idea, from my coaching practice, to help break the viscous circle. The aim is to find accurate timings for tasks and instil confidence that your abilities to complete tasks.

  1. Break the big blob up into smaller tasks. It’s not going to make them any more appealing but it each one will seem more manageable.
  2. Pick one task, preferably a smallish one that you think you may be able to accomplish relatively quickly.
  3. Do the task and time yourself.
  4. Make note of the timing in a note pad, that you will keep. This becomes the objective evidence that you can look at when you feel overwhelmed.
  5. Repeat the process with other sub-tasks.

What you will find is that the smaller tasks are often completed much quicker than you’d expected. You will also have objective data to call upon next time you are faced with the task.

As a psychology lecturer, it has not been unusual for me to be faced with a pile of more than 100 or 200 student essays to mark (grade). I simply split them up into batches of five, and then tackle those. I put the big pile out of sight and just focus on five at a time. I make a note of how long it takes me to do each batch of five. What usually surprises me is that the essays don’t usually take as long to mark as I first expected. You can apply the same principle to mundane things such as the ironing. Look at the labels in the clothes and create three piles based on the dots on the label. Three dots need a hot iron. Tackle those first, switch the iron setting down to two dots then have a little break to allow the iron to cool. Then tackle the two dots and final the one dot clothes. Make sure you make a note of the timings. Ideally do it a few times until you get your average timings.

What this “break-it-up and time-it approach” does is it creates smaller more manageable tasks and it provided objective data.

I now know that after an elaborate dinner party where I’ve used used just about every utensil in the place, it only takes about half an hour to wash them. When I first look at the pile it looks as though it’s going to take a three times that. Now that I have the data, my perceptions have changed and my feeling of overwhelm has reduced. Conduct your own personal experiments to see how it works for you.

Based on material from: Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It

Related posts:  

The Viewing Influences the Doing: Coping With Big Jobs & Distorted Perceptions of Time

The viewing influences the doing and vice versa

The viewing influences the doing and vice versa

How you view the world influences what you do in the world and vice versa.

Big Jobs
So a huge pile of paperwork seems insurmountable and may cause you to think ‘I’ll never get through that’. And of course, for as long as you see it as a huge, insurmountable pile of paperwork, then you will struggle. However if you break it down into a series of small, manageable piles of paperwork, you perception of the task will change.

Stress
When you are under stress, your perceptions are distorted, including your perception of time. You will underestimate what you can achieve in a given time and you’ll overestimate the amount of time a task will take. The problem is, you don’t really have an accurate idea of how long the task will take – you’re just guessing. What’s more, your guess is negatively distorted.

Accurate Data
There is only one way to counter your distorted perception of time and that it to get some accurate information. This is where the idea of personal development experiments comes in useful. Firstly, break the large task in to smaller, manageable chunks and then time yourself to see how long it takes to complete one chunk and make a note of this. Do this for a second equally sized chunk and make a note of the time, and again for a third chunk. If you add the times up and divide by three, you’ll get a more accurate (average) timing per chunk. This will allow you to make a more precise assessment of how long the whole task will take to complete.

Positive Outcomes

By this time your stress level will have decreased too and your perception of the task will have changed. Doing will have influenced the viewing and now you’ll have a new reference point on which to base future experiences and you will have completed part of the task too.

Links:

Bright Moments: Do Re Mi . . . Pass It On!

It’s often the petty daily hassles that drag us down and cause us stress and those little surprise daily uplifts that balance it all out. So, I just thought I’d pass on this bright moment.

(More than 200 dancers were performing their version of Do Re Mi, in the Central Station of Antwerp, with just 2 rehearsals they created this amazing stunt! Those 4 fantastic minutes started the 23 of march 2009, 08:00 AM. It’s a promotion for a Belgian television programme  looking for someone to play the leading role, in the musical of The Sound of Music).

Links:

Having Better Days By Balancing the Daily Hassles & Uplifts

Beating Stress: Balancing the Daily Hassles and Uplifts

We often say that ‘bad news comes in threes’ but do not seem to have a corresponding rule for good news.

The ‘hassles and uplifts’ theory of stress argues that it’s the little things in life that tend to grind us down, such a miserable shopkeepers, someone ‘cutting us up’ in traffic, queue jumpers, or grey skies.

By contrast, it’s the little things that tend to ‘make our day’ such as compliments, a smile from the shop keeper, good manners and common courtesy, a few rays of sunshine, someone giving up their seat on the bus or letting you in the queue or a particularly good cappuccino.

At the end of each day we do a mental balance sheet. If the petty hassles and niggles outweigh the little uplifts, we say we’ve had a bad day. If the uplifts outweigh the hassles, we say we’ve had a good day. The great thing about this is that we can take control and turn stressful days around by creating more uplifts for ourselves.

However, the process starts by retuning our perceptual filters to take stock of good stuff to balance the pessimistic prophecy that bad things come in threes. Here’s how:

Links:

A Short Course in Personal Development: Psychological Skills for Elite Performance

The four basic psychological skills for elite performance are:  relaxation; goal-setting; self-talk; and creative visualization. Here are three exercises utilizing these skills. Practised regularly they will support and enhance personal development and elite performance:

(i) Relaxation: Our ability to control our stress response has a profound effect on human performance and how we process information.

(ii) Self-Talk: The way we talk to ourselves – our inner dialogue – creates self-imposed limitations for how we view the world and what we do in the world.

(iii) Goal-setting & Visualization: This simple exercise is used by top athletes and uses creative visualization to support goal setting to create a sense of having already achieved the goal. It’s a good way to build and maintain motivation.

I use the concept of ‘personal experiments’ with coaching clients. This approach allows us to try techniques on for size, with no intrinsic sense of failure. We simply commit to the techniques for a given period of time (say two to four weeks) to allow ourselves to collect data. So give them a go and assess the results (and feel free to post any feedback). For some information, see the link to my self-help book below.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Stress, Damned Stress & Perceptions of Stress

Participating in a phone-in this morning (BBC Five Live with Nicky Campbell) on stress I was struck by the enormous range in capacity that people have when coping with stressful lives. This is perhaps not surprising since all human abilities show a complete spectrum of skill level. It’s also true that perception plays an important part in how we cope.

Inevitably, an discussion on stress becomes like a poker game of the  ‘I’ll see your disaster and raise you a catastrophe‘ variety. However, stress is not a level playing field. Our ways of reacting to stress and coping with stress depend to a great extent on learning, such as how parents, family and friends cope with stress and whether we have inherited a pessimistic or optimistic outlook on life. It’s also our unique pattern of life events has also pre-disposed us to view stress in different ways.

The main thing that emerged from the phone-in was that sometimes it only look a brief respite from overwhelming stress to make things seem more manageable. It’s often the little things in life that make us happy and make difficult times more bearable. So, people might say that they need a ‘bloody good holiday’ when sometimes a cup of tea and a chat would do the trick.

It’s important to recognise that we all need a bit of stress in our lives to get us performing at our best. The good stress is called eustress.  We talk about an ‘adrenaline rush’ that carries us through difficult times. The problem is that there is a tipping point. A little bit of stress improves performance but high levels of stress have a detrimental effect. The ‘bad’ stress is distress.

One of the things that we can do for ourselves is to build in little breaks throughout the day and take time out (away from our stressors) and just take some long, slow deep breaths. This cuts against the stress cycle and can take the edge off things. We instinctively do it every time we brace ourselves for a difficult task and ‘take a deep breath’. We do this to take the edge of our stress and get it back with in productive limits.

One thing we can do for others is to listen without feeling the need to trump their stress with tales of your own. Sometimes people just want to be heard. So do something nice for someone and just listen for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fighter pilot listening to someone talk about a difficult boss. Just because you have experienced more stress than they can possibly imagine, that doesn’t take anything away from their own distress. In fact, there’s nothing worse than being told ‘you problems are nothing’. It only adds to the stress.

Sometimes people feel guilty for feeling tired and stressed out especially when others are depending on them. However, it’s not self-centred to need a break: it’s human and it makes good sense. Think of aeroplane emergencies. People are told to put on their own masks before they help their children. In short, you look after yourself first so that you are better equipped to take care of others.

Overall, the thing about stress is that we can learn to cope in ways that are more productive and that starts with taking a more strategic approach and building in relaxation to your schedule (however brief) whether or not you think you need it. So practising a few breathing exercises, getting some fresh air, having a cop of tea and a chat.  The secret is to work out what works for you (and your circumstances) and then practice it, almost religiously, everyday. The more we practice the more deeply conditioned the response becomes. In short, these little safety valves become habits. Getting into the habit of improving your response to stress on a day-to-day basis can automatically help you be better prepared when faced with tough situations.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Positive Worrying & Future Desired Outcomes

We usually assume that no good can come of worrying but it doesn’t stop us doing it. We run our mental ‘home movies’ of future events as if they had already turned out badly. We re-run old conversations and worry that we should have said this or wished we hadn’t said that. So can any good come of worrying?

Worrying is usually thought of as a bad thing because it focuses on the negative. However, it is possible to use the same set of skills with a positive focus. You may be surprised to hear me speaking of worrying as a skill, but it’s something we practise and we get good at it. That’s a skill.

Worrying actually involves two key psychological skills:

  • the ability to form vivid mental images,
  • the ability to create  inner  dialogue (self-talk).

Both are usually stuck on the ‘deflate’ setting. Once we switch the emphasis to ‘inspire’ we can create and rehearse positive mental pictures and words instead.  This is what I call, positive worrying. Using these skills helps us to support our goals, taking exams, on a date, taking a driving test, giving a presentation, and so on. If you’ve got a desired end result in mind, the you can use positive worrying to build yourself up instead of keeping yourself down.

Positive worrying involves creating a mental image of the end result, or the finished line, not how you got there. Focusing on the end result creates a sense that you’ve already succeeded and helps to build motivation. It’s a technique that top athletes use to support elite performance.

Here’s a short video explaining more about ‘positive worrying’ followed by links for an inner dialogue (self-talk) exercise and a basic relaxation technique. Use them all to help create a positive change in the way your view yourself, your skills and your goals.

Links:

Self-Talk: Water Wings & Concrete Galoshes.

Two-Minute Stress Buster.

Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It.