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8. Decent Work

Published onSep 19, 2022
8. Decent Work


How can HRM contribute to decent work for all workers who contribute to the organization?

Key Theories
Decent work definition and dimensions
Stress theories
Ethical HRM

Key HR Practices
Corporate social responsibility
Fighting excessive hours
Health and safety policy

Work is central in the lives of many people. Work provides a means for food, housing and leisure, it defines who you are and it offers connections with other people. During a lifetime, a large amount of time is spent working. Taking up such an important part of our lives, work directly impacts our quality of life. Just by looking in your own network of friends and relatives, you will notice differences in the extent to which work contributes to individual well-being for some and to problems, worries and stress for others. The observation that the quality of work determines the quality of life is the focus of this chapter.

What exactly constitutes good quality of life, is a philosophical question that occupies both scientists and policy makers. In this chapter, we take the World Health Organization’s definition to understand the essence of a good quality of life, which holds that life is good when you feel well physically, mentally and socially (WHOQOL Group, 1995). Physical health refers to the biological functioning of one’s body, mental health refers to psychological sanity and well-being, and social health refers to the ability to healthily function within one’s social and broader societal environment.

Human resource management practices can target work conditions that affect employees’ physical, mental and social health. Incidents involving work-related injuries and diseases causing ill health can be traced back to unsafe work conditions and policies, which can be managed and improved. Likewise, unregulated overtime and excessive demands can stretch employees so thin that they become mentally ill and get ‘burned out’, unable to function effectively anymore. Moreover, organizational policies can determine how work is prioritized over family and community involvement and deteriorate social well-being. Hence, when not managed effectively, work can lead to ill health in all domains of life and incur serious costs for societies, organizations and individuals. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that work-related illness and injuries cost about 4 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product each year. The European Union commission calculated that work-related stress costs member countries 15 billion Euros per year. In addition, hidden costs resulting from reduced productivity of employees with impaired health conditions stress organizations on top of the costs related with absenteeism and replacement. These impressive numbers underline the importance of good working conditions on both societal and organizational levels.

On the individual level, large differences can be noted on how good or how bad work conditions are. In general, the more uncertain, unpredictable and risky work conditions are from the point of view of the employee, the more severe the health impacts and the less life can be ‘good’. Bad jobs exist all over the world, ranging from mere exploitation in case of child labor and home production work, to work that is characterized by uncertainty about income continuity in case of many self-employed and temporary workers. In the United States, for example, one out of seven jobs is qualified as a ‘bad job’ because of a combination of job insecurity and social protection insecurity (Kalleberg et al., 2000).

A shared moral concern exists worldwide that bad jobs should be abolished in order to improve the quality of life for all. One of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 proclaimed by the United Nations calls for inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all. In the same vein, the European Union promotes good “quality of employment” and agreed on aims to raise the number of better jobs within a sustainable economic growth (Council of the European Union, 2001).

Let’s have a closer look at what is meant by decent work. On the continuum between bad jobs and good jobs, decent jobs are those that provide men and women with opportunities to obtain work that allows earning a decent income under conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity (Burchell et al., 2014). Hence, it concerns both the access to work and a fair income for all, as well as the quality of the work that provides the remuneration. Decent work is not an economic concept. Words like freedom, equity, security and human dignity all indicate that moral rather than economic values prevail in judging if work is decent. This implies that jobs that raise ethical concerns should motivate human resource management to evaluate the minimum standards of decent work (Greenwood, 2002).

Two theoretical perspectives are combined in this chapter: the normative-ethical perspective that puts the individual worker and their well-being central as the target of HRM, and the bio-psychological health perspective that explains why employees suffer from bad jobs.


Decent work is a relatively young concept, and researchers and policy-makers still debate about its definition and dimensions. Despite this conceptual discussion, the theoretical perspectives that underline the decent work agenda have a long and convincing research tradition. In this section, we first describe the dimensions of decent work about which researchers and policy makers largely agree. Next, the two main theoretical foundations of decent work are outlined: stress theory and ethical HRM. Stress theory comes from the domain of health sciences and it shows the consequences of work to the physical, psychological and social well-being of working people. Ethical HRM theorizes how human resource professionals have an ethical responsibility to enhance the well-being of all workers.

Decent work definition and dimensions

Decent work is the minimal standard for work conditions that allow a good quality of life. Unfortunately, researchers and policy-makers debate about the content and measurement of the concept. Moreover, policy makers like the ILO and the EU use different operational definitions, and both do not follow theories and research traditions on job quality. Needless to say, economists, sociologists and psychologists all have their own traditions when researching the quality of jobs. A complicating issue is that jobs can be analyzed on different levels, ranging from the work environment of a job in a specific organization to broad labor market systems in which jobs are performed. Policy-makers prefer national level indicators such as the unemployment rate and child labor indicators to monitor progress on the policy agenda. Researchers, on the other hand, have focused on theories concerning job quality, which look at work in organizations and tend to neglect the wider societal environment that also affects work conditions (Burchell et al., 2014).

An operational definition of decent work that serves both the elements of work availability and social security as well as the quality of work is offered by (Anker et al., 2003). Following this definition, the first three dimensions concern the availability of decent work for all. These are more macro-level standards that say something about work conditions in a country and for groups of persons within countries. The last five dimensions concern the quality of work. These standards focus on the micro-level of jobs in organizations and can be used to determine if a given job in an organization is ‘decent’.

Availability of decent work

The three indicators below mostly relate to the economic, societal and regulatory environment of work that predict the chances to obtain decent work.

  1. Opportunities for work: Employment opportunities for everyone who is available and seeking work. Work is defined in the broadest sense of the word: it can be a job in an organization, being self-employed, free lance work, or unpaid work in the family domain. Work can happen in the formal economy and in the informal economy. When unemployment rates are high, workers have difficulties getting work at all and are more likely to accept jobs of lesser quality. But even in countries that have very low unemployment rates, some groups have more difficulties finding a job than others. For example, the Japanese unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the world. Still, women find it hard to find employment. And although Europe is slowly recovering from an economic crisis, youth unemployment rates in countries like Greece and Spain remain around 40-50%. Thus, opportunities for work for all are the first indicator for decent work.

  2. Basic human rights: The second indicator concerns the abolition of work that is objectionable based on international conventions regarding basic human rights. Every person has the freedom to choose work; no work should be enforced. Any type of forced labor like bonded labor or slave labor must be abolished. In addition, all labor performed by children under 14 or by children who have not finished compulsory education is considered forced labor and must be abandoned. Because much unfree work happens in the informal economy, it is hard to find numbers on the prevalence of unfree labor. However, reports on human trafficking illustrate that migrants and the poor are vulnerable to getting trapped in bonded labor (Rijken, 2011). Child labor (the percentage of children age 10-14 not enrolled in secondary education) ranges between 30-50 percent in some African countries, while in most middle-income countries this percentage varies around 15 percent or less (Ghai, 2003). Basic human rights are the red line for the worst types of bad work: crossing it means not just worse job conditions, but criminal employment.

  3. Social security: The social security indicator concerns regulations for the protection of workers against contingencies such as old age, disability, death of the principal breadwinner and unemployment. Pensions, health insurance, adult education and welfare pay are policies that ensure workers’ protection. Policies fitting this third indicator are often initiated at societal level and can be executed by governments, organizations or workers’ associations. For international comparison, the percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on social welfare and education are taken as a measure of the state of social security in a country.

Quality of work conditions

The five indicators in this section relate to the quality of jobs.

  1. Productive work: Productive work means that the job provides employees with sufficient income to live as an independent person. To achieve this, the job should provide adequate earnings at least at the minimum standard of living in a country (Ghai, 2003). A common norm for minimal income adequacy is that the pay needs to be more than one-third of the median earning in a country. However, when excessive hours of work are needed to get the target earning, the work is not productive in providing an independent life. Very small jobs of just a few hours per week are also not adequate for obtaining an income to live a life as an independent person. Moreover, very small jobs reduce the chance of future productive work. This implies that decent working hours need to be taken into consideration before deciding that the earnings are adequate. The same holds for all types of temporary jobs, such as agency work, self-employed and hourly waged jobs, because the trade-off between periods of work and unemployment reduce the net income over a longer period of time. So, stability and security of work are another condition of productive work. This does not imply that an employee needs to be in the same job for a lifetime. Key to stability and security of work is that there is assistance by the employer to enhance their employees’ employability, which ensures the employees’ attractivity on the labor market. Organizations can support this by for example investing in training and education, since each investment in human capital increases the likelihood of further productive work.

  2. Equity in work: Equal opportunity and treatment in employment means no discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, but equal treatment of all employees. Example topics concerning this indicator are equal remuneration, no exposure to violence and harassment and fair treatment with regard to grievances and conflicts.

  3. Dignity at work: The job needs to allow a quality of life outside work, with respect to combining work, family and personal life. Dignity is present when there is job protection and monetary benefits when an employee needs to take absence due to family circumstances (for example because of maternity leave). But also, some day-to-day privileges regarding the need to integrate work and family by allowing flexible hours and the availability of adequate childcare are examples of dignity at work. When employees have no say in their working times or risk their jobs when personal needs interfere with job demands, this will hamper their ability to balance work and private life.

  4. Security at work: The work environment needs to be safe, without hazards to physical and psychological health. Unsafe work conditions can lead to injuries and deaths at work. Moreover, working with dangerous substances causes work-related diseases and excessive work demands may lead to physical and psychological complaints. Hence, security at work is essential to ensure that employees are able to execute work.

  5. Social dialogue, employers’ and workers’ representation: A social dialogue implies that workers have a say in their working conditions and that the employer takes employees’ input seriously so that the work arrangements are beneficial to both employers and employees. Due to the power imbalance between a single employee and an employer, workers can associate themselves and appoint representatives who negotiate with employers on their behalf. Hence, freedom of association is a part of decent work since employees have the right to defend their interests. Examples of social dialogue are employer-employee (representative) negotiations, consultation of employees in case of changes that impact work, exchange of information between employers and employees, participation in workplace decision-making and the right for employees to join a workers’ association or union. Many countries have traditions of collective bargaining involving negotiations between unions and employers about the terms and conditions to come to a collective agreement. Another example of far-reaching social dialogue is economic democracy, where employees actively participate in the management of the organization. This can cover a wide field, ranging from representation on the governing boards and management committees to playing an active role in the administration of training and human development programs.

The decent work dimensions are normative statements that tell what a decent job should look like. They do not tell why these dimensions make sense to advance employee well-being. Obviously, a bit of policy debate has taken place before the decent work agenda was accepted as a UN policy. To date, the debate about which indicators should be used to measure decent work at country, industry and worker level continues. Therefore, it goes too far to say that decent work is a theory. However, the combination of criteria for decent work is grounded in a good tradition of research on healthy and unhealthy work conditions advanced by health scientists, psychologists and sociologists. The overarching theme in these different research traditions is stress. The next section zooms in on stress and the contributions to the development of stress theories in the health, psychological and social domains.

Work and health: Stress theories

Life is full of events that may cause stress and that have an impact on quality of life. Although events like illness, divorce, giving birth, relocation or the death of beloved ones are stressful, recovery is possible and natural but does not always happen. Some stress just causes too much strain and results in an incomplete recovery. Literally, strain refers to the maximum capacity that materials can be stretched. By putting stress on a thin iron bar, you can bend it many times, until it is overstrained and breaks into two. With human beings, stress refers to a condition in which the limits of effective human functioning are overstrained. Overstrained human beings experience the boundaries of their physical, psychological and social flexibility and experience loss of health and life quality. Since work is central in the life of many people, it makes sense to look at the consequences of work-related stress in more detail. First, general stress theory is explained, which describes the origins of biological stress theory (Selye, 1956), psychological cognitions that cause differences between people (Lazarus, 1993), and how one’s environment can hamper or soften the ability to cope with stress consequences (Hobfoll, 1989) (see Figure 8.1). After that, two work-related applications of stress theory are examined in more detail: burnout and work-home conflict theory.

The figure shows some boxes with arrows pointing between them, describing three pathways leading from a "Stressor" to "Consequences for health and wellbeing".

The first pathway goes from "Stressor" to "Biological response" to "Increase of stress hormones" to "Consequences for health and wellbeing".
The second pathway goes from "Stressor" to "Psychological cognitive response" to "Interpretation of the stressor" to "Consequences for health and wellbeing".
The third pathway goes from "Stressor" to "Social behavioral response" to "Adaptation of rseources, behavior, emotions" to "Consequences for health and wellbeing".
Additionally, all the boxes are interlinked.
Figure 1

Overview of stress theories

Stress and health

In the 1920s, young medical student Hans Selye observed that no matter what health problem brought patients to the hospital, they all looked sick. He reasoned that being hospitalized after having some accident, surgery or disease does something to how you feel. This feeling of anxiety leads to a biological reaction he called ‘stress’, which he noted impaired the power of the cure administered to the patient (Selye, 1956). He noted that prolonged exposure to stress did biological damage in the end, which he called ‘the disease of adaptation’. Later it was argued that not only physical illness invoked stress responses, but that any event in life that is experienced as threatening can cause a stress reaction and do damage. After years of debate whether stress is a physical or a psychological state, research evidenced that stress reactions include interrelated biological, emotional and social consequences. Stress can make people sick, literally. It leads to negative emotions like feeling anxious or depressed. And it costs energy, which impairs the ability to function normally. All these consequences can be related to the inborn human balance restore system of homeostasis and allostasis.

When people function optimally, there is a match between what they can do and what is required of them. This state of homeostasis expresses the optimal level of physical, emotional and social stability. According to the allostatic principle, people have inborn mechanisms aimed at maintaining this stability by adjusting their physiological, mental and social resources to match the demands in their environments. Strain happens in situations when people experience that their resources for healthy functioning are depleted by the demands required by the context. During demanding situations, the human nervous system secretes stress hormones, a biological response to the perception of threat. Stress hormones increase alertness, which helps people to survive in threatening circumstances. After the threatening experience that caused the increase of stress hormones has faded, the body needs some time to recover and bring the level of stress hormones back to normal. The biological stress reaction is a very adequate response of the body to increase alertness and energy levels in order to respond to a demanding or threatening situation. However, this adequate biological system has problems functioning healthily when the real or perceived threat is there to stay. Because stress hormones demand a lot of energy from the body, prolonged periods of stress lead to exhaustion of the physical system (Juster et al., 2010). In a kind of domino effect, the biological systems in the body begin to overcompensate and eventually collapse, causing physical stress-related diseases like high blood pressure, depression and heart diseases. Known physical symptoms of stress reactions are muscular strain, reduced sleep quality and reduced attention – bearing an increased risk of getting involved in accidents.

Despite its original medical background, stress theory also proved to be useful in understanding psychological and social reactions to demanding situations.

Stress and cognition

There are large differences in how people respond to stressful situations. While mountaineering seems to be a nice challenge for some people, it can be a very stressful and demanding experience to those who fear heights. Since the activity does not change from one person to the next, it must be the way that the challenge is perceived that converts it into a stressful situation for some people. According to psychologist Richard Lazarus, stress involves a two-way process in which first the environment produces stressors, and second the individuals’ reactions to that stressor. He acknowledged that there are individual differences in how individuals react to stressors, depending on how they mentally interpret the nature of the stressor. His conception regarding stress led to the theory of cognitive appraisal, a theory that explains the mediational process of interpretation between the stressful event and the behavioral and emotional response to that event (Lazarus, 1993). What does this stressor mean to me? Is it important? Is it good or is it bad? Does it frighten me or worry me? Lazarus showed that the mental processing of the nature of the stressor, which he called cognitive appraisal, ultimately determines how one will respond to the stressor. When the stressor is perceived as challenging or dangerous two things can happen. Either you think that you can deal with it and see it as a good thing. A stressor that raises your attention can actually lead you to perform really well. Only when you think that you do not have the resources needed to cope with the stressor, the stressor starts to pose a serious threat. Lazarus showed how emotions interfere with the cognitive appraisal of the stressor. If you start thinking that the stressor is severe and that there is nothing that you can do to change the situation, you will develop a stress syndrome and be unable to effectively cope with the situation. Here is where cognitive appraisal meets health: the real or felt inability to effectively cope with a stressful situation leads to health complaints such as depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.

The cognitive appraisal theory explains why people react differently to threats. Because perceptions of threats can differ from one person to the next (some fear spiders, others do not) and because stress responses depend on individual differences in stress resiliency (because of experience, age, cultural differences or personality), people show a range of coping reactions in response to demanding situations. Despite these individual differences, there appears to be a baseline of consequences related to prolonged periods of stress that is true across age, culture and individual differences; in the end, continued exposure to stress always leads to health issues (sleep quality, high blood pressure and mental illness).

Resources and stress

So far, there has been little attention to specific types of stressors. Sociologist Hobfoll (1989) reasoned that the level of stress caused by an event is indeterminately interwoven with the social system in which you function. Social systems also follow the allostatic principle. When there is a balance between what people aspire in daily life and the resources they have to fulfil their obligations and aspirations, they feel good and function well. Having a house, sufficient income, time for leisure and social support from friends are some of the key resources to live a happy life. A lack of resources to live a normal life is very stressful. Poverty for example makes people worry about primary needs for survival such as a home and food, and it impairs people to participate in social activities like sports and education and it can make people have a low self-esteem. When people keep trying to adapt their psychological and social resources under prolonged stress levels in order to survive, these resources will wear out eventually and start showing all kinds of malfunctions. Hence, poverty wears out people’s psychological and social resources in many ways, which increases stress levels and causes illnesses like depression. The greatest stressor, however, is when important resources are lost and the social system is struck out of balance. According to the allostatic principle, one will try to overcome the loss of resources by compensating it with some other resource. The energy needed to compensate for the loss of the next resource causes a spiral loss of real, social and psychological resources that increasingly activates biological stress reactions (Hobfoll, 1989).

Each of the decent work indicators touches upon resources deemed essential for living a life without too many worries: a fair income, the freedom to choose where to work, social protection, safe work conditions and equal opportunities. It needs no explanation that prolonged exposure to precarious work conditions that fall short of decent work characteristics cause a threat and lead to increased levels of stress.


Like metal that breaks if it gets stressed too often, human functioning collapses when exposed to chronically high demands. Dealing with chronic stress puts a high demand on the physical and mental functioning. Chronic stress deregulates the biological immune system and leads to vulnerability to illness. Similarly, when the mind continuously has to activate cognitive resources to adapt to chronically high demands, these get depleted over time. Metaphorically speaking, the oxygen that lights the human fire slowly burns out until it is exhausted and there is no light anymore. This is what happens in a job burnout: excessive demands and continuous stress from work and social relations are so high during a prolonged period of time that exhaustion develops a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion characterized by feeling chronically fatigued.

The syndrome called burnout was recognized as a job-related illness in the 1970s by Freudenberger, who interviewed social workers who helped drug addicts. He found that many originally highly motivated social workers became exhausted by the emotional demands from working with drug addicts. They did not believe in their effectiveness and they were talking cynically about their efforts and successes of improving the situation of those they were trying to help. In the same period, Christina Maslach found that symptoms of exhaustion that characterize the burnout syndrome always go together with feeling cynical about work and accomplishments and lead to withdrawal and detachment from work (Maslach et al., 2001).

A job burnout develops over time. It begins with feeling a lack of energy and being tired most days. Then, problems with sleeping, having difficulties remembering things, increased heartbeat, high blood pressure, muscular pains, increased illness, loss of appetite, feeling anxious or depressed indicate that the system is developing problems in coping with stress. The body signals that energy reserves are exhausted, and cognitions start to get desperate – noticing that nothing helps whatever is tried, becoming cynical and feeling detached from work, combined with feelings of ineffectiveness and the full awareness of lacking accomplishment at work. Behavioral symptoms of burnout are withdrawal behaviors, like absenteeism, reduced performance or turnover. Health symptoms are cardiovascular and indigestive complaints and mental illness like depression and anxiety disorders.

Once a burnout is complete, it is impossible to function normally, and recovering from a severe burnout can take months to years and can leave lasting scars in physical and mental resilience to cope with future stress.

Given these severe consequences, theory and research examined which aspects of individuals, work and organizations increase the risk for burnout, which will be presented in the following section.

Preventing stress overload

As the causes of stress are many, preventing it has been found to be like fighting a multi-headed dragon. The causes and solutions for stress can lie in how individuals cope with stressors in the job design, and in the broader context of work existing in the organizational culture and work policies. Below is an overview of domains where stress overload can develop and be prevented.

Individual differences. Resilience is the individual ability to cope with stressors. Positive people suffer less from stress and show better resilience. Such a positive attitude is a valuable resource and is therefore called psychological capital. It involves the capability to stay optimistic, persevering yet flexible and confident in challenging situations (Youssef & Luthans, 2007). If problems occur, these characteristics help you bounce back and even to push you to achieve success. People with higher levels of psychological capital report less stress and anxiety, less cynicism and withdrawal behaviors and more happiness, satisfaction and commitment (Avey et al., 2011). Intervention research has shown that even short trainings can contribute to improving psychological capital. So, in the prevention of stress overload, HRM could provide training to increase employees’ positive psychological capital.

Job design. The job can provide opportunities to cope with challenges, or, by design, limit the ability to cope with demands. Hence, the way instructions, procedures and routines in a job are organized can be a resource or a hindrance in dealing with the amount and complexity of the tasks that have to be performed in a job. Decision latitude, which is providing employees with autonomy to take control over tasks and behavior during the working day (Karasek, 1979), helps people to balance the work demands with their skills, energy and interests and stimulates learning and development. Decision latitude may involve having a say in the working hours, the place to work, with whom to work, the possibility to make mistakes and learn from them, the sequence in which tasks are performed and the choice of tasks itself. In jobs with low decision latitude, work is meticulously controlled. Moreover, the returns that follow from the job help to cope with the stress induced from work. In particular when the rewards are in balance with the income and status of the job, there is a more positive and energizing cognitive appraisal of the demands. Many professionals like doctors and scientists accept the long hours because they value the rewards and esteem it brings them (Siegrist, 1996). Other resources that can be provided in the job design are feedback and social interactions in teamwork. Feedback helps to clarify what is expected exactly and can therefore reduce uncertainty and anxiety. Teamwork increases the opportunities for decision latitude and feedback. Moreover, teams provide social support and are a good outlet for reducing stress. The list of job characteristics that serve as a resource to cope with demands can be extended and fine-tuned depending on the nature of the demands in the job. For example, blue-collar workers’ job demands to work with heavy equipment would imply safety as an important resource to reduce stress. Modern job design theories emphasize that the more resources provided in the job match the job demands, the happier and healthier employees will be (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007).

Work climate. Although the social environment at work can be a helpful resource in coping with work demands, in many instances peers and supervisors create a work climate that is disadvantageous for some. Forms of harassment behaviors include bullying, threats, yelling, giving the silent treatment, exclusion, and even physical assault and sexual harassment occur in some workplaces. In such hostile work environments, stress is hardly imposed by the work itself, but originates from the work climate. The victim’s attribution of who is to blame for the harassment (self or organization) influences which coping style is used. Victims who blame themselves for being harassed will develop a negative self-image, feeling ineffective and depressed. Those who blame the organization and the people who conduct the harassment are better at keeping their self-worth, but will reduce their effort to reciprocate to the organization. In both instances, well-being and performance are affected. Burnout, depression, frustration and health complaints are reported consequences of victims of harassment (Bowling & Beehr, 2006). Workplace harassment is common in work environments where other stressors exist, such as role ambiguity, role conflict and high workloads. Consider for example organization change processes when roles and tasks are insecure for many, or reward systems that promote individual greed, dissatisfaction and frustration. In a negative work environment, the workplace becomes a political arena where individual interests prevail over group interests and where a work climate in which harassment is common and can grow (Salin, 2003). The interventions to prevent harassment go beyond the level of job design and should address the work climate by ensuring effective leadership and fair organizational policies.

Work-family interference. If stress at work is continuously high, home would be the place to relax from work. However, work is just one of the domains in life that demand attention. Participation in the family role also takes energy, and stress from work then spills over to the family role. Work-family interference research focuses on the spill-over effects of both domains in life. This interference is not necessarily bad. The experience in one domain can help to better enjoy and perform in the other domain. For example, team sport participation during leisure time provides the opportunity to develop collaboration skills that benefit working in teams at work. However, when work and private time becomes incompatible, there is a risk of a major stress factor called work–family conflict. In case of a work–family conflict, the participation in one domain (work or family) is made more difficult by participating in the other role (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Consequences of work-family conflicts include health (recovery) problems, mental strain (worrying) problems, and behavioral (withdrawal) reactions like quitting work. For example, when working hours become too long, the time to recover and enjoy a healthy family life is diminished. Excessive 6o+ hour work weeks are proven to bear health risks because the body does not get enough rest to recover from the efforts needed to perform during such long hours (Amstad et al., 2011). Many countries therefore have a regulation of normal working hours that ranges around 40 hours per week. Participation in work and family also bears the risk that worries about one domain continue while acting in the other domain. Parents who feel stressed from work find it difficult to enjoy family time and have less energy to play with their children, which in turn makes them feel guilty and causes a spiral of strain that affects health and well-being. Likewise, marital problems, private financial issues and health problems of relatives are all stress-evoking personal experiences that make effective functioning at work more difficult. Withdrawal behaviors like reduced effort, absenteeism and quitting work result from efforts to cope with work-family conflicts. Work-family interference is a complex phenomenon where social role expectations in the work and family domain interfere with how severe the experienced strain from work-family conflict is. Differences in social role expectations exist between men and women, between parents and non-parents and between countries and cultures.

Conclusion: decent work and stress theory

A healthy dose of stress activates alertness and improves performance. If stress is continuously too high, the physical, mental and social resources used to cope with the demands slowly get depleted and result in physical and mental health issues that can eventually lead to a burnout. Restoring the loss of resources to overcome a burnout takes time. Stressors come from the domains of work and home. Job characteristics and work climate generate job demands, which can spill over into the home domain, and vice versa. Individual differences in resources and the ability to cope with demands explain why people react differently to apparently similar demands. The bottom line is that no one is able to continuously function under levels of excessive stress. Because the decent work indicators were developed using insights from the stress theories presented in this chapter, it follows that these contribute to healthier and happier work conditions.

Ethical HRM

How much stress can organizations put on employees? Rather than a quantitative question, this is an ethical question. Ethics is the domain that examines moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or how an activity is conducted. Views on which behaviors are ethically just have developed over decades from ancient Greek philosophers through Christianity, and the Renaissance. Modern ethics are largely influenced by utilitarian morality and by Kant. The essence of utilitarian morality holds that behavior is ethically just when it benefits the majority. Applied to human resource management, utilitarian ethics could argue that adverse work conditions for some are allowed, under the condition that the majority benefits from the cheap costs of products that result from cheap work. Kantian ethics disagrees with the utilitarian viewpoint, and holds that every action should be good with respect to all aspects that are affected by the action.

Reviews on ethics in human resource management state that the word ‘resource’ in human resource management suggests a utilitarian view on morality because it reduces the human to a resource just like machines and buildings. This conceptualization has been acknowledged and criticized. Marxist theory, for example, has since long disapproved of the managerial ‘use’ of workers to benefit a small group of capitalists, resulting in a critical stance towards the potential of HRM. Being part of the disguised managerial system itself, HRM is in a weak position to improve the position of employees.

Recent perspectives on ethical HRM have found a way out of the utilitarian morality in favor of a more Kantian perspective called stakeholder theory (Greenwood, 2002)(Simmons, 2003). It states that because organizations have multiple stakeholders besides the shareholders, they have the moral obligation to take the well-being of customers, suppliers, employees, society and the natural environment into account in their strategy and practice. Although financial outcomes are important for organizations to survive and legitimize their existence, these should not hurt the well-being of people nor the environment. Since human resource management targets one specific social group, namely employees, it follows that ethical HRM should not see workers as just a commodity to reach organizational goals, but as an end in itself, meaning that employees should be treated according to some moral standards.

Basic rights are moral standards applied to workers in the Kantian tradition. They hold that if authority is to be exercised over employees to reach some organization goal, they deserve to be treated with respect. Respect follows from adhering to three fundamental ethical rights: the right to freedom, well-being and equality (Rowan, 2000). The right to freedom concerns the way managerial control over employees is exercised: are employees provided with sufficient income to live off as an independent person? Do they have job security and a fair wage? The right to well-being points directly at the rights of individuals to pursue their own interests or goals, such as that all employees have the freedom of association and collective bargaining. It also emphasizes a safe work environment, both physically and socially. Finally, the right to equality refers to due processes in the workplace (equity, equal opportunity, justice). These moral principles can be mapped on the decent work indicators. The concept of decent work fits with this ethical perspective on HRM as it also aims for equal opportunities for all employees to be able to engage in work under free and secure conditions (International Labour Organization, 1999). Moreover, the standards explicitly ban discrimination and promote a safe and healthy work environment.

To conclude, the decent work indicators combine insights from research in stress theory, but they also take a moral position: employees have the right to be treated with respect.

Key research

Abundant meta-analytical evidence exists which underlines the importance of each decent work indicator for physical, mental and social health of people. Here is an incomplete but impressive summary of meta-analytic findings per indicator.

  1. Access to work. The gut feeling that unemployment is an undesirable state of being is confirmed in meta-analytic research. Indeed, unemployed individuals have lower psychological and physical well-being than their employed counterparts. As compared to the employed, unemployed people report less satisfaction with life, more non-healthy behaviors such as smoking, report feeling more depressed, and score higher on objective ill-health indicators such as stress hormone levels (cortisones), which in turn relate to stress-induced illness (McKee-Ryan et al., 2005). These findings confirm that having access to work is important to well-being.

  2. Basic human rights. Targeting research at people who lack the freedom to deny unacceptable work is difficult because much of the unfree labor happens in the informal economy. This makes ‘freedom of choice of employment’ a difficult area to research and a systematic analysis of quantitative studies is not available to date. However, a series of studies reported on physical and mental consequences for victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking refers to the practice of trading people for labor and making them work under circumstances they cannot easily escape from due to the threat of violence, debts or other freedom-restricting conditions. A systematic review compared existing reports on the most frequently studied cases of human trafficking: women and girls in prostitution (Oram et al., 2012). The review confirms the detrimental consequences of forced labor for individual health (e.g. HIV infections), threat of violence and mental distress, and emphasizes that the detrimental effects of prosecution of employment that violates basic human rights are non-debatable.

  3. Productive work. Productive work means that the income one receives from the job allows for a decent life. When looking at income levels per country, it is found that lower income groups report less well-being, have more health issues and lower life expectancy than those who earn above average (Berkman et al., 2014). There is also meta-analytic evidence that perceived imbalance between the effort put into work and the amount of reward offered in return for that effort (the effort-reward imbalance) relates to ill mental health. Depressions, suicide and anxiety disorders in particular prevail among those who experience imbalance between what they put into work and what they get in return (Stansfeld & Candy, 2006).

  4. Equity in work: Equity in work can be linked to research on harassment, bullying and discrimination. Discrimination is a severe form of inequity. In a meta-analytic sample of 134 studies, the negative effects of discrimination are clearly present (Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009). A wide range of physiological and psychological stress responses are developed after repeated exposure to discrimination, such as mental problems, unhealthy behavior and health problems. Dealing with experiences of discrimination may leave individuals with less energy or resources for making healthy behavior choices and is related to participation in unhealthy and non-participation in healthy behaviors.

  5. Dignity at work. Work should allow a normal life outside work. To understand how work impacts family life, meta-analyses on work-to-family conflict can be consulted. Work-to-family conflict means that responsibilities at work interfere negatively with responsibilities at home. When work negatively interferes with family responsibilities, it makes people feel worse about their marriage and the relationship with their children (Amstad et al., 2011). But the implications go further: work-to-family conflict also reduces one’s general well-being such as life satisfaction and health, and leads to psychological stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. The research also indicates that work that hinders normal social functioning at home backfires at the employer because it causes work-related stress, and reduces job performance and job satisfaction.

  6. Security at work. Work hazards impairing security at work include occupational exposure to unsafe conditions including poisonous materials (such as asbestos), unsafe equipment (such as scaffolding without banisters) or lack of training and instructions to use tools and equipment in a safe manner (such as a driver’s license to operate a forklift truck), and managerial prerogative putting excessive demands (such as demanding excessive production norms). The negative effects of unsafe conditions like excessive work demands for mental health are well-established (Stansfeld & Candy, 2006). Moreover, international reports on occupational diseases and injuries estimate that worldwide each year 100,000,000 occupational injuries happen (causing 100,000 deaths) and that 11,000,000 people suffer the consequences of occupational diseases (cancer, cardiovascular diseases that can be linked to work conditions), of whom 700,000 die each year (Leigh et al., 1999). Apart from the reduced capacity for productive work, impaired health and stress consequences for victims of work hazards, occupational injuries and illnesses also cause substantial social (care, work-family issues, divorce) and economic (costs) effects (Dembe, 2001).

HR practice

The value of the ethical principles such as the ILO standards for decent work is that these can serve to judge the minimal conditions that determine the quality of work to ensure a decent quality of life. This may prove to be especially useful when researching non-standard organizations, such as smaller organizations, nonstandard work arrangements and work in the informal economy, where employees’ reports about their well-being tend to be worse than of those working with regular contracts in large organizations (Tsai et al., 2007). Below are four examples of work that violates the decent work criteria. Each example also provides some research evidence about successful interventions to improve work conditions.

CSR: Decent work down the supply chain

Precarious work, also known as sweatshop work, represents working conditions which are typically characterized by low wages, unhealthy conditions, no training, few safety investments, and long working hours. The ILO calls precarious labor conditions adverse contractual arrangements and claims that these are working conditions that violate employee ethical rights and hold back individuals from making an independent living (International Labour Organization & Workers Symposium on Policies and Regulations to Combat Precarious Employment, 2011). Commonly, these conditions occur in developing countries. However, looking at supplier organizations in developed countries, precarious work can be found, especially at the end of supply chains, in production processes involving low-skilled labor (Kroon & Paauwe, 2014). A possible explanation for this circumstance is given by the construct of cost-driven HRM, which aims to get as much productivity out of workers at the lowest costs. Based on an economic argument that suppliers down the production chain are dependent on sellers up the chain who can dominate the pricing debate, this leaves little room for supplying organizations to negotiate higher prices, which in return makes it impossible for them to offer decent labor conditions (e.g. pay adequate salaries). Combatting precarious work can be part of corporate social responsibility codes (CSR). For example Locke et al. (2007) report findings of factory audits of working conditions in 800 supplier organizations of Nike in 51 countries. After a course of criticism for sourcing its products from factories and countries where low wages, poor working conditions and human rights problems exist in the 1990s, Nike installed an audit system to regularly assess the labor-management practices and working conditions at the supplier factories. The audit results indicate that the more cooperative the relationship between buyer Nike and supplier manufacturer, the larger the improvements of working conditions over time, suggesting that CSR audits need additional management involvement to realize improvements.

Working hours: Fighting excessive work hours

Stress and the feeling of exhaustion can occur when employees do not balance their working and leisure time. There is a general agreement that workdays of more than 10 hours, or work weeks of more than 50 hours are excessive. Working excessive hours is especially common in demanding professional or managerial occupations such as medical staff, lawyers, or bankers. Additionally, differences between countries with regards to working over-hours are present. Japanese even coined a word for death by overwork (karōshi) and suicide by overwork (karojisatsu) (Kanai, 2009). Research shows that for example the US and Australia reveal similar levels of working hours per employee and that those appear to be higher compared to Western Europe (Caruso et al., 2006). Excessive working hours also prevail in informal hence uncontrolled labor relations as ILO reports illustrate. Excessive hours are detrimental to the realization of decent work indicators. First, if many hours are needed for an employee to make a living, the indication arises that work is not productive. Second, long hours lead to prolonged exposure to work stressors and are an important risk factor for work-related injuries and illness. Third, the longer an employee has to work, the less time remains for the family and participation in social activities. Finally, excessive hours may indicate that the dialogue between the employer and the employees is lacking (Anker et al., 2003).

Employers can prevent excessive hours by installing overtime policies and alternative scheduling options. However, intervention studies indicate that the instalment of policies alone is not effective if the causes for the excessive hours are not examined. In medical professions, for example, a culture of long working hours is transferred from one generation of physicians to the next, because senior medical staff shared the norms about acceptability of working long hours and the shared belief exists that medical staff in training undergoes the same regime. So, younger medical staff do not complain because they do not like to stand out. Although interventions that reduce the number of work hours by changing work schedules have positive outcomes both for employee well-being (sleep quality, learning) and for the organization (fewer errors), these will only be accepted if the subjective norm about ‘normal’ working hours changes (Caruso et al., 2006). Hence, any working schedule change should be accompanied by communication and training to ensure a shift in norms about normal working hours. This way policies regarding working hours do not only get implemented but are also internalized and thus accepted by all individuals in the organization.

Another cause for working excessive hours is insufficient staffing. Shortages in staff are detrimental to dividing the workload. The work needs to be done, and the number of employees simply does not match the demands. Growing volumes of sales or clients need to be met with the same number of employees. If no additional staff is available, the only flexibility the organization has is asking current employees to work more hours. Strategic workforce planning should therefore be part of the HR strategy. It involves understanding the current amount of work and the employees needed and an analysis of future developments in both the requirements for the number and quality of workers, together with an analysis of labor supply. If shortages are to be expected, recruitment and training programs can be developed to build in-house capacity to deal with expected shortages. Many firms use young talent programs to ensure future managerial and specialist capacity for the organization.

Finally, wages that are too low to cover the daily expenses in life drive individuals to work excessive hours, just to raise their income to make a decent living. Especially those in small jobs find it difficult to live from their wages and often take on a second (or even a third) job. The mental demands following financial worries and the long and unpleasant working times induce mental and health complaints. National policies for minimum wage and minimum working hours are put forward in some countries to improve the working times and income of weaker groups in society.

Creating security in temporary jobs

The increase in organizational flexibility has led to a decrease in the share of workers holding permanent tenure with a single employer (Bidwell et al., 2013). The number of temporary positions has substantially increased in the past decades. In particular, young workers, low-skilled workers and women are over-represented in temporary jobs.

Why are temporary jobs detrimental to decent work? To begin with, having work only for a certain period means that there is no stable income. Furthermore, people who do not permanently work for an employer are often excluded from work-related training and thus do not build their human capital, which can have a negative influence on future pay and employment prospects. Hence, temporary jobs reduce the ability of employees to obtain productive work. Additionally, research shows that temporary work, especially when the perspective of subsequent work is low due to high unemployment rates and the availability of many temporary workers in a country, is associated with serious psychological problems (Virtanen et al., 2005), and job uncertainty associated with temporary work has negative consequences for physical health, job performance and trust (Cheng & Chan, 2008).

Thinking about evidence-based actions that can be taken in this regard, the situation seems to present a conflicting demand because organizations are looking for flexibility, and workers looking for stability, growth and certainty. Initiatives in the European Union are making an effort to balance these two needs into a model that ensures both flexibility and security. The so-called flexicurity model is an (inter)national policy aimed at enhancing the flexibility of labor markets, work organizations and labor relations on the one hand and at improving employment security and social security on the other hand (Wilthagen & Tros, 2004). Flexicurity is thought to benefit weaker groups in and outside the labour market who normally find it hard to find permanent jobs. Although the flexicurity model does not provide permanent jobs for all, it provides permanent security of employment, training and income. Hence, from a decent work perspective, the issue of productive work is met by assuring employment security rather than job certainty. This means that workers are supported by a welfare system that ensures income to bridge time between jobs and employer-led investments in training and work experience aimed at increasing worker employability, which facilitates transitions from one job to the next. HR practices within such a model involve support for training and development for all employees, including temporary workers, and demand an active role of employers in helping all employees make a smooth transition to a next job. To date, countries vary in the extent to which the flexicurity model has been successfully adopted. A notable example is Denmark, which heads the list of countries with the highest labor market participation rates in the EU.

Health and safety policies

Preventing harassment as well as supporting a healthy and safe work environment have always been part of the responsibility of HR departments. Rather than a compliance to satisfy health and safety law, it should be a strategic part of the HR agenda to promote decent work. To help organizations deal with the health and safety of their employees, there are international guidelines to assess and improve health and safety at work. The Occupational Health and Safety Assessment Series (BS OHSAS 18001) is an international standard used for developing sound occupational health and safety policies in organizations. The assessment includes an investigation of health and safety risks which then leads to an intervention plan, much like how evidence-based HRM works. The rationale for the interventions follows a hierarchy. First, if possible, health and safety risks should be eliminated by abandoning the work completely. The example of child labor is work that should be abandoned. Second, the risk factors should be substituted, or at least tried to be substituted, for example by replacing working with toxic materials to working with non-toxic materials. Third, by engineering controls, the work environment can be made safer. For example, rather than working with ladders, a platform with scaffolding can be built which reduces the risk of falling accidents. Fourth, administrative controls can be developed that instruct people how they should work under risky conditions. For example, in plants you will find instructions about where to walk and where not to walk. Finally, organizations need to provide personal protective equipment if there are no other means to prevent the health and safety risks on the job. Personal protective equipment can be hearing protection, protective glasses or an adjustable chair.

Occupational health and safety (OHS) systems are common in larger organizations, and their benefits for employee health and well-being and also for economic returns have been confirmed in review studies. Smaller organizations and those in the informal economy often lack the means and monitoring to implement OHS systems, rendering the quality of employment in smaller organizations more adverse than those in larger establishments.

This chapter presented the key dimensions of decent work which provide workers with the minimum conditions to reach a good quality of life. After discussing these dimensions, stress theory was used to explain how stressors in the working environment put demands on employees that, in situations of incomplete recovery, will lead to health issues like burnout or work accidents. Additionally, an ethical view on HRM pointed out that a moral component plays an important role concerning working conditions and managing personnel. Moreover, employees have a right to be treated with respect and be involved in issues regarding their working situations. Finally, four key HR practices were presented that showed how organizations can achieve decent working conditions from which both, the employer and the employee, will benefit eventually. The conclusion for organizations should be that they are aware of the fact that they are responsible for their employees and need to take action to ensure decent work.

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