On Monday this week, Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green was telling us that “working is better for people’s health than sitting at home on benefits”. The Chief Executive of Public Health England agreed saying health, wellbeing and happiness were “inextricably linked to work”.

I wondered if there was an evidence base to back this up or if this was simply another excuse to drive down future welfare spending.

The first hurdle for researchers is how to measure happiness and well-being. Happiness is by nature subjective. Trying to measure someone’s happiness or well-being through a single question or multi item question may seem simple but it’s a research conundrum researchers struggle with. These questions raise all sorts of reliability and validity issues. The UK Annual Population Survey asks ‘Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?’ but yesterday might have been terrible with an unexpected stonking electricity bill or joyous with a Lottery win.  Then there’s the problem of non-selection bias where even the weather can affect your answer or you feel you have to put on a positive face in a face- to- face interview and say you are happier than you actually are. But for the record, using the question above, UK happiness measured 7.5/10 in the financial year ending in 2015 (up 0.08 points on the previous year).

Our own Trajectory Global Foresight (TGF) survey includes questions on life satisfaction and happiness, so we ran the tables to see how work affected happiness for UK respondents.

TGF asks respondents:

‘Please think about your life as a whole and on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is not at all satisfied and 10 is completely satisfied) tell us how you feel’.

For ease of analysis I’ve left out those people who were ambiguous and scored in the middle of the scale (5 to 7).

Trajectory Global Foresight 2011-2015

Trajectory Global Foresight 2011-2015

Clearly, we can see that those in employment are happier than those unemployed (46% compared with 25% satisfied). But surprisingly, the most satisfied group are those who aren’t economically active. The retired, homemakers and students are a happy lot – 59% of these respondents gave a high overall satisfaction with life score.

And look at the results when we ask specifically about happiness:

‘Taking all things together, would you say you were Very Happy, Quite Happy, Not Very Happy, Not at all Happy:

Trajectory Global Foresight 2011-2015

Trajectory Global Foresight 2011-2015

Again, those who are not in the jobs market are the happiest (91%) with the employed being a pretty happy bunch too (88%). But even among the unemployed nearly 7 out of 10 say they are very or quite happy. It seems that contrary to what our political leaders think. Retirement, being a homemaker or a student – all inextricably not linked to work – is the way to go, in terms of happiness at least. But that’s not to ignore that the biggest unhappiest group are the unemployed – nearly 1 in 3 are unhappy.

So does this mean that work really makes us happier or is it just the financial security, status or social contact that it brings us? We know from many studies across many countries, that happiness is higher if you are female, married, highly educated, healthy, and with a high income. And happiness is U shaped – the young and the old are most happy and the middle aged least content (Blanchflower, 2007).  That suggests that when people are working most (and probably have most financial and family responsibilities), happiness is at its lowest levels.


What makes us unhappy?

Research tells us that misery is highest among the newly divorced and separated, the mid-life crisis-ers (mid to late 40s), immigrants and minorities, commuters, people who live in polluted areas, people with disabilities, those in poor health and the unemployed (Blanchflower 2007, Kahneman et al, 2004, Levinson, 2012).

So being in poor health, disabled and unemployed are key factors but as we well know, poor health and disability is linked to unemployment and inequality.

Richard Layard is well known for his work on happiness and an expert on employment and inequality. He’s ranked the factors that affect happiness: family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends and health. Work is up there in third place but Layard also warns of ‘the tyranny of work’ and puts forward the idea of a ‘tax on work’ – this helps people to preserve their work-life balance. Too much work, or the wrong type of work, negatively affects people’s happiness.

Is Damian Green looking at this the wrong way round? Is it actually poor mental and physical health that leads to people “sitting on sofas all day”? Research bears this out, particularly with mental health. An Australian longitudinal study that followed a group of people who were all working at the start of the study, found that poor mental health predicted subsequent unemployment. On average, men and women who experienced common mental disorders spent greater time over the next 4 years unemployed than those with better mental health (Butterworth et al 2012).

Here in the UK, last year the JRF reported that people in poor health are far less likely to remain in work than those with good health. They are also less likely to move from unemployment into work, and indeed are more likely to become unemployed if in work. When working, people with poor physical or mental health are more likely to move from permanent to temporary work or into a low-paid job from a better-paying job. They are also significantly more likely to move from full-time to part-time work, and less likely to move out of low pay. Those in poor mental and/or physical health are also more likely to go into low-pay employment, even when they have a high level education and skills (Webber et al, 2015).

What is the future for Damian Green’s policy? It may well be that ‘encouraging’ people with poor physical and mental health into work might not improve their happiness or well-being but have the reverse effect, making them worse as they slide down the ladder into poorer paying, less secure employment.