Jobs and Wellbeing: reopening the debate

20 September 2021

At a glance:

  • The claim that employment is indispensable for well-being is politically influential and should be investigated.


  • This claim is often presented as a conclusive fact, grounded in evidence, and has been drawn on for political purposes such as justifying job-focused benefit conditionality, establishing employment as a health outcome, and putting pressure on disabled people to enter work. The political currency of the idea that employment is essential for health makes it worthy of further scrutiny.


  • A review of key studies suggests that the relationship between employment and well-being is variable, sensitive to context, and ultimately ambiguous.


  • Research shows that the impact of employment and unemployment on human well-being is shaped by context. Studies have explored the mediating role played by a range of factors, including job quality, individual preferences, and the extent to which policies, relationships and cultural values support people’s ability to control their lives when not working.


  • Citizens’ well-being is not supported by the prescription of employment.


  • We outline the principles for a less job-centred policy agenda, more in tune with the research. This agenda recognises the importance of job quality and the right to work, but also stresses the possibility of reconstructing unemployment, increasing the potential for time outside work to be secure, dignified and rewarding.



David Frayne
Max Maher