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UW study: Is there a secret recipe for getting the most out of workers?

Much of the studies on workers or employment have focused on the physical environment and the toll on the human body. But little has been known about how general employment conditions like pay or hours can affect an employee’s health — until now.

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“Generally speaking, things like being a contract worker, having very low wages, not having a lot of control, appear to be detrimental,” said Anjun Hajat, addressing just one aspect of a new study out of the University of Washington.

“So we’ve known forever that poverty is bad for your health,” she continued. “And a lot of these jobs where we find they have to poor employment quality, also tend to be pretty low-income. Gig workers are definitely important to keep in mind when we talk about this because they often have less security in every aspect of their work.”

According to a new study authored by Hajat and Trevor Peckham with the University of Washington, employment conditions influence health outcomes. Basically, whether the employer or regulations determine the quality of work, that work will affect overall health, or even the risk of being injured on the job.

By considering a combination of pay, hours, or leave benefits, employers could potentially tap into a sweet spot of work quality. Hajat and Peckham told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross this means happier workers. And that in turn means higher productivity.

“What we’re saying is that the experience of employment really depends on a package of different things,” Peckham said. “So if you’re meant to feel powerless or you think your work is unfair, this could cause psychological stress or it could cause it to be difficult to do life planning. If you don’t know where your next job is, it’s hard to have a family and plan.”

Such factors could include income levels, contract versus permanent positions, or scheduling.

The study used data from the General Social Survey collected between 2002 to 2014 and considered a pool of 6,000 employees. It found that one in five workers had a “standard employment relationship,” meaning permanent work and regular hours. On the other end of that spectrum are workers with poor employment conditions — non-permanent, contract, low hours, low wages.

Peckham said that they found several patterns in between. For example, one result was found in a group of workers with fairly standard, stable full-time hours and decent wages. Sounds pretty good on the surface.

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“But they also have really low flexibility over their schedule, they have low involvement in decision-making, they’re experiencing harassment,” Peckham said. “These are all indicators that they’re fairly disempowered. And when you look at associations with health, they report worse self-reported health, worse mental health, more occupational injuries. So if you were just going to focus on contract type or wages, you might miss some of these things that might be related to health.”

They also found a group of workers with lower hours and lower wages, but they had a high sense of opportunity, control, and decision making. They reported levels of health similar to standard jobs. Such factors could indicate there is an employment recipe to get the most out of workers. This could not only influence policy makers in government, but also the culture of employers.

“One other thing that we might think about, that the Europeans do, is they have really flexible economies where it’s easy to hire and fire people and they tend to be ‘business-friendly,’” Peckham said. “But they also couple that with a high social safety net, so the consequences of losing your job tend to be lower there.”

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