Millions of UK workers in insecure jobs are facing increased vulnerability due to pay volatility, unpredictable working hours, and a lack of core protections such as sick and redundancy pay, warns a recent study by researchers from the Work Foundation at Lancaster University.

The notion that people choose insecure work for the flexibility it offers is flawed, as nearly half of them (46%) would seek alternative employment if given the opportunity.

However, these workers often feel trapped due to various factors including the high cost and limited availability of childcare and transportation, as well as a lack of local job opportunities.

The study, supported by UNISON and based on survey responses from 4,000 UK workers (2,000 in insecure work and 2,000 in secure work), reveals that one in four insecure workers (28%) are struggling to make ends meet, with women being the most affected.

The survey data aims to understand the reasons why individuals opt for insecure jobs—positions characterised by unpredictable pay, uncertain working hours, and a lack of employment rights and protection—and examines the factors influencing their choices.

Who feels most at risk?

Researchers found that insecure workers are more than three times as likely as secure workers to perceive a risk of job loss, with 42 percent of insecure workers expecting to lose their jobs within the next year compared to just 13 percent of secure workers. The study also indicates that younger and older workers, those with low incomes, and part-time workers feel they have limited options when seeking to move out of insecure work.

Women in insecure work face even greater challenges. Roughly one in three women (32%) admit to struggling financially, compared to less than one in four men (23%). Additionally, 16 percent of women in insecure employment report suffering from poor mental health, higher than 11 percent of men. These figures are lower for individuals in secure employment, with 10 percent of men and 11 percent of women experiencing similar issues.

Ben Harrison, Director of the Work Foundation at Lancaster University, emphasises the strain experienced by workers in insecure jobs as inflation and interest rates rise. He challenges the belief that the benefits of flexibility outweigh the risks associated with temporary, part-time, or zero-hour contracts, stating that nearly half of these workers disagree. Harrison asserts that workers feel trapped in these jobs due to circumstances beyond their control and calls for government intervention to overcome these obstacles and provide access to more secure employment.

The general secretary of UNISON, Christina McAnea, highlights the disproportionate impact of the cost-of-living crisis on low-income individuals. McAnea emphasises that those on zero-hour and other insecure contracts not only face financial difficulties but also lack sick pay and other employment rights. She notes that precarious work particularly affects disabled employees and women managing caregiving responsibilities, stressing that they do not choose this type of work but often find themselves stuck due to limited opportunities.

The survey findings reveal additional insights into the experiences of insecure workers:

  • One in three insecure workers are uncertain about their earnings in the next three months, and they are twice as likely (26%) to experience job-related stress for 4-6 days a week compared to those in secure employment (13%).
  • Insecure workers are over four times more likely to experience last-minute shift changes, which often result in pay decreases.
  • More than half of insecure workers (52%) earn less than the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard of £25,500, and 28 percent report finding it difficult to make ends meet.
  • Part-time insecure workers and freelancers face higher financial struggles, with approximately 34 percent from both groups indicating financial difficulty compared to 23 percent of full-time workers.
  • Workers lacking confidence in affording unexpected expenses are 3.7 times more likely to report poor mental health.

Ben Harrison suggests that the future of the UK labour market has become a political battleground, with major parties pledging to address labour shortages and improve job quality. He believes that the report’s new evidence on the choices and experiences of those in insecure work can inform these debates and outlines the necessary interventions to support workers in securing better-paying and more stable jobs.

The Work Foundation calls on the government to mandate employers to incorporate flexibility into all job roles from the beginning of employment and ensure it is accessible to everyone. The organisation also encourages the development of campaigns promoting flexible working specifically to men and disabled workers. Additionally, the report recommends that the Department of Education increase the pay rate for workers on maternity, paternity, and parental leave, and devise a long-term plan to strengthen the childcare sector in accordance with parents’ needs and aspirations.

 

 

 

 

Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.