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Bosses using zero-hours contracts should focus more on managing the wellbeing of staff

Zero-hours contracts have become a controversial topic, often associated with workplace abuse. While this isn’t always the case, research has called for bosses to take staff mental health into account.
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It was suggested back in 2013 that those on zero-hours contracts were happier with their work-life balance than permanent staff. But it does turn out, however, that some people find such work more stressful than others.

The mentioned 2013 research, conducted by CIPD, claimed zero-hours contracts were “underestimated, oversimplified and unfairly demonised”. Its analysis of over 2,500 workers found they were just as satisfied with their jobs as the average UK employee (60 per cent and 59 per cent respectively). They were even suggested to be happier.

According to Philip Pepper, employment law partner at Shakespeare Martineau, there is often an ambiguity around what these types of contracts actually mean for the employer and employees – and that is what causes the problems. “However, as long as the employer has well-managed systems in place to support this type of contract, there is no reason why such contracts can’t work for everyone.”

Indeed, McDonalds seemed to pave the way in 2015 by banning exclusivity clauses, which inhibited employees from working elsewhere. The company also offered staff rotas two weeks in advance.

Likewise, the fast-food joint recently trialled a scheme offering workers across 23 UK cities the chance to move to a permanent contract. The Guardian unveiled, however, that 80 per cent “chose to remain on flexible contracts”.

While this may be the case, Pepper warned it would be wrong to assume zero-hours contracts are suitable for all employers. Even staff won’t know if they’re suited to a more flexible lifestyle unless they try – and sometimes zero-hours is the only option available to them. So it becomes crucial for bosses to ensure their mental health, just like they would for permanent staff.

After all, the UCL Institute of Education now maintains such contracts could be putting people’s mental and physical health at risk, with MP Melanie Onn saying: “Not knowing how many days you’ll be working, or even if you will be working, from day to day, puts huge strain on people trying to balance their household budget.” 

Indeed, the data analysis of 7,700 Brits born in 1989-90 highlighted how those on zero-hours contracts were 41 per cent less likely to report good health – and its most likely to impact millennials. 

“Millennials have faced a number of challenges as they entered the world of work,” lead researcher Morag Henderson explained: “They joined the labour market at the height of the most recent financial crisis and faced higher than ever university fees and student loan debt. It may also be that the worry of having no work or irregular work triggers physical symptoms of stress – including chest pain, headaches and muscle tension.”

As such, Henderson called on both government and the corporate landscape to promote better quality jobs which enhance, rather than damage, mental health and wellbeing.

That leaders should look to better manage the wellbeing of all staff, including those on zero-hours contracts, was echoed by Jonathan Chamberlain, partner at Gowling WLG. He said: “At times it is not so much the contract, rather than the way it is managed that is the issue.

“Where both employer and employee appreciate the flexibility of the zero hours approach, and there is an independent focus on managing the well-being of all staff, whether permanent or temporary, the risk of developing poor health issues can be significantly reduced.”

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Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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