For the past three years, I have been exploring whether there is much we can do to counter one of society’s most devastating ills. It is associated with a wide range of problems: including poor mental health, social isolation and even suicide. This is not a disease in the typical sense but it certainly carries the characteristics of a ‘social disease’. It is, of course, unemployment.
The best way to counter unemployment is to of course promote or provide employment. But in an economic system like capitalism, there will always be a ‘rump’ of unemployed people: no matter how fair or equal a society is. The question then turns to what we can do to help those who find themselves suffering from job loss.
There are lots of things governments can do. They can, for example, provide social benefits to ease the economic costs of unemployment. Over the past twenty years or so however, one particular intervention has expanded in the UK and beyond: training programmes designed to move unemployed people closer to the labour market.
Training programmes for the unemployed are a diverse range of interventions. And this is a crucial point. People most often associate such schemes with welfare-to-work interventions like the Work Programme. Yet, whilst the Work Programme is the largest such intervention, there are a huge range of other programmes: skills training, education, work experience or, more simply, ‘keeping people busy’.
My main research question is whether such programmes mitigate some of the psychological, health and social costs of being unemployed. But why might this be the case? One argument is that being unemployed and on a programme is very different to being unemployed and not on a programme. It involves more daily structure and activity, social interaction and – if they are of sufficient quality – optimism for the future.
Some of my findings have just been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies and the results are fairly consistent: training programmes are associated with higher well-being amongst the unemployed. Looking at data from the large-scale Annual Population Survey, I found that unemployed participants had higher life satisfaction, life worth and feelings of happiness compared to unemployed non-participants.
This is largely in line with the small number of studies from other countries – such as the US, Finland, Australia, Sweden and Germany – that also show a positive well-being impact of training programmes for the unemployed.
Yet, it is not quite as simple as this. There are, at least, three important caveats for future policy-making.
First, the effect of training programmes is relatively small. Whilst it is a statistically significant effect, it is not comparable to the well-being effect of paid work. In terms of happiness at least, training programmes are certainly no substitute for a real job. Further, there is no effect of programmes on reducing the anxiety of the unemployed.
Second, there are only well-being effects for certain types of participants. Women benefit less, as do older unemployed people and the more highly qualified. Training programmes are not a well-being panacea for all types of unemployed people and we need to explore why they are ineffective for large numbers of participants.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly from a policy perspective, specific types of programmes are more effective than others. In particular, there is a crucial dichotomy at work. On the one hand, programmes that focus on skills, training and work experience – many of which are voluntary – have apparently high well-being effects. On the other hand, programmes that focus on intensified advice – most of which are mandatory – are completely ineffective. Vitally, this includes the main welfare-to-work scheme the Work Programme, which I find to be exactly the same as ‘open unemployment’ in terms of well-being.
So, what is going on and why do some types of programmes have observable well-being effects? One idea is that such programmes mimic the ‘latent functions’ of paid work. This the theory that work is good for well-being for a wide variety of non-economic reasons: time structure, daily activity, social contacts, collective purpose and social status. By mimicking these functions, training programmes can improve well-being.
A second idea, which has emerged from qualitative research I conducted in Greater Manchester, is far simpler. This is that the better quality and voluntary schemes might simply treat people with dignity, respect and care. Unemployed people often feel stigmatised and ashamed by their status. When they enrol on a programme where advisers treat them with dignity - and give them the time and space to develop – such feelings of stigma and shame can be challenged. Sadly however, this is far from the case in the Work Programme, which invoke in many people feelings of antipathy and hostility.
The conclusion then is that training programmes can promote the well-being of the unemployed. But only in specific training contexts, for certain types of unemployed people and if they promote the right type of values. On these terms then, the Work Programme is certainly not the cure for the psychological impact of unemployment.