How the Future of Work May Impact Our Well-Being
The health of workers in a rapidly changing work environment is often overlooked. In a time when incomes, schedules, and health care are becoming less predictable, what are the ramifications for health?
When her regular job hours were cut, Lulu, who is in her 30s and lives in New York, couldn’t find a new full-time job. Instead she now has to contend with unsteady income and an erratic schedule juggling five jobs from different online apps to make ends meet. Cole, in his first week as an Uber driver in Atlanta, had to learn how to contend with intoxicated and belligerent passengers threatening his safety. Diana signed up to help with what had been described as a “moving job” on TaskRabbit. When she arrived, she had to decide whether it was safe for her to clean up what looked to her like medical waste.
Work is a powerful determinant of health. As these stories about taxi, care, and cleaning work from a new report show, it is a central organizing feature of our lives, our families, our neighborhoods, and our cities. And work—its schedules, demands, benefits, and pay—all formally and informally shape our opportunities to be healthy.
But the world of work is rapidly changing. Job instability and unpredictable earnings are a fact of life for millions. Regular schedules are disappearing. With “predictive scheduling,” a retail worker today is essentially on call, making everything from booking child care to getting a haircut impossible until the work schedule arrives. Health and other fringe benefits are less often tied to the job. Nearly six in ten low-wage workers today has no paid sick leave. Two-thirds lack access to employer-based health care benefits.
And what is workplace safety when there is no workplace? In the gig economy, marketplace matching apps like TaskRabbit and others can create difficult trade-offs for workers who depend on the income. If a worker leaves a job undone because she feels unsafe in a male client’s presence, for example, or if she is asked to do a different job than she signed up for, the client can give her a one-star rating and the worker will have little recourse. When online platforms like these tie ratings to higher pay, the incentive for workers is to put the job before safety.
And more change is on the way. In the past 20 years, the growth of jobs in non-traditional firms—platform-based jobs like Uber or Task Rabbit, self-employed freelancers, and subcontractors—have far outpaced the growth of traditional firms. Some economists estimate this sector currently makes up roughly one-third of the U.S. workforce and may reach 43 percent of all U.S. jobs in the next two years.
Well-Being in the Future Workplace
All of this affects health and well-being. Our job at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is to look at emerging trends and their implications for health and health care. Through our efforts to elicit pioneering ideas around the future of work, we’ve been exploring interventions to improve well-being in the workplace.
We’ve been thinking about three areas in particular. First, we’ve been exploring how the nature and structure of work detract or contribute to our well-being. How, for example, do erratic schedules affect diet and sleep? The evidence is pretty clear that they both suffer. Long days, back-to-back shifts, and unpredictable work hours also make parenting harder and high-quality child care nearly impossible to secure. Financial instability creates chronic stress, which has a destabilizing effect on health. Not only do vacillating incomes make it difficult to afford a doctor, but the chronic financial worries have a cumulative effect on the body.
Second, our Future of Work grantees have identified numerous examples where discrimination and bias, both intentional and unintentional, go unchecked in the gig economy, and traditional worker protections are absent, deepening vulnerabilities.
Takarah, for example, cleans homes in New York City through an app called Handy. Handy’s policy protects their cleaners against “no-show” clients by paying them a kill fee so long as they remain within 500 feet of the no-show client’s home for at least 30 minutes after the scheduled start time. The app tracks their location. But for some women like Takarah, waiting can get uncomfortable, particularly when she is working in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods like the Upper East Side.
"It’s uncomfortable because I am black and...I stand out” as she waits out her 30 minutes on the stoop or sidewalk near the home. “So I don’t like to be in that situation,” she told researchers of a study we funded called “Beyond Disruption.” She will sometimes opt to leave, and forfeit her kill fee for the client’s no-show. “Sometimes I don’t get paid for that and I don’t think that is fair.”
Handy’s wait policy does not take into account the way racism shapes the kinds of scrutiny and risks that people of color may face in public space.
Finally, and on a more basic level, health insurance is increasingly the responsibility of the employee to secure, particularly in low-wage work and the gig economy. Policies such as the Affordable Care Act have taken steps to address this by allowing individuals to buy affordable health care on their own. Other innovations such as portable benefits uncouple health care from an employer. The construction industry, for example, allows workers to take their health care with them when switching jobs within the industry. In other fields, customer surcharges help pay benefits. Alia, a mobile platform created by Fair Care Labs, the innovation arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, collects money from clients to fund benefits for house cleaners such as sick leave, disability, and life insurance.
In our work, we’ve found that employers want to do the right thing but need help finding a clear path. Therefore, we supported the development of the Good Work Code, eight simple values that begin to codify a set of rights and obligations for both workers and employers. If you’re hiring a home-care worker, what’s a fair wage and how should you treat someone? And the flip side, what is good quality work? The code is a first step in promoting good standards and being clear about what those are.
People in the United States spend half their waking hours at work. We need both vibrant economies and jobs that enable people to live the healthiest lives they can. As RWJF works to build a national Culture of Health, we will continue to study the effects of work on health and health equity and find ways to ensure the changing world of work supports good health.
For more on the gig economy read Beyond Disruption How Tech Shapes Labor Across Domestic Work & Ridehailing at Data & Society.
We’d love to hear from you. How does work shape your life and health? What kind of policies would you like to see in the workplaces of the future that promote well-being and a Culture of Health?
about the authors
David Adler is a senior program officer working ensure that the nation’s health and health care systems meet the needs of the people they serve. In particular, Adler’s work focuses on ensuring consumers are represented in all levels of health system transformation and exploring ways to use Medicaid as a lever for building a Culture of Health. Read his full bio.
Paul Tarini, senior program officer, focuses on exploration, discovery, learning, and emerging trends that are important to building a Culture of Health, as well as fostering connections between health and health care. Read his full bio.