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In thinking about labor, policymakers should also focus on questions of quality

Legislative investment into improving the quality of work has been haphazard and minuscule when compared with recent investments in alleviating pain and premature deaths.

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

Much has been written on the changes brought forth by the latest Minnesota legislative session, including a wide-ranging discussion on whether or not these changes will achieve their ultimate goal. However, less attention has been paid to the singular goal of all legislative change — decreasing human misery.

Every elected official justifies their agenda under the assurance it will improve their constituents’ lives (whether or not you believe them largely depends on your party affiliation). To assess the success of any legislative change though, we must first understand the underlying drivers of human suffering.

According to economist Richard Layard’s 2020 book “Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics,” there are three primary causes of misery in current human existence: pain (mental and physical), premature death, and poor-quality work. The first two points are often linked, as a pervasive reliance on substances to manage physical and mental pain has led to an increase in premature deaths across the country. Pain and premature death are largely acknowledged as primary sources of misery, rightfully resulting in massive investments into the expansion of treatment centers and healthcare access, regulation of prescription drugs, and more.

The third cause of human misery — poor-quality work — receives less investment, despite copious research illustrating the connection. A 2015 study asked 10,000 people to rate their wellbeing at random points throughout the day. It was discovered that people were most miserable while engaging in paid work (the only activity more miserable was being sick in bed). A 2019 study by Gallup found that actively disengaged employees experience more stress, anger and physical pain than unemployed individuals. The effects of poor-quality work on Americans’ wellbeing is so widespread that the U.S. Surgeon General issued a 30-page framework last October to address it.

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What legislative solutions have been put forth to alleviate this particular form of misery? The closest public officials have come to improving poor-quality work is through strengthening or weakening unions (depending on your politics), mandating paid family and medical leave, and instilling “business-friendly” policies to draw more employers to the area. These policies are all heavily influenced by party affiliation, thus reducing their overall efficacy and sustainability. To reliably address the issue of poor-quality work, we must start by illuminating the definition of quality work.

Some define quality work as any position that comes with a steady paycheck and benefits like good health insurance, paid time off and employer contributions toward a retirement plan. Others define it as work that fulfills a personal sense of purpose, as evidenced by numerous studies illustrating a majority of Americans would trade a portion of their pay to do work they find meaningful. Still others believe a strong connection to coworkers and mission are the foundation of quality work — in other words, being part of a strong company culture.

Perhaps you believe quality work consists of all these things — satisfaction with your working conditions (including pay and benefits), an intrinsic sense of meaning in your work, and a connection to your coworkers and company mission. In that case, quality work is synonymous with employee engagement — a 30-year-old field of study dedicated to assessing and improving employees’ level of emotional and psychological commitment to their organization, workplace and mission. Employee engagement takes a holistic approach to quality work, defining it as work that provides satisfaction, meaning and connection.

Leah Phifer
Leah Phifer
Poor-quality work is a primary driver of human misery. Yet the legislative investment into improving work has been haphazard and minuscule when compared with recent investments in alleviating pain and premature deaths. If we emphasize a holistic approach to quality work, then we may be able to avoid the trade-offs that often make us miserable, like accepting a high-paying job only to be perpetually exhausted or pursuing your passion only to find you’re broke and lonely.

Aside from the legislative and medical communities, few of us have a direct impact on mitigating pain and premature death. However, the pool of people who can influence the quality of work is quite vast. It includes leaders in the private, public and nonprofit sectors, as well as consultants, co-workers and human resources professionals. Virtually anyone can be involved in advocating for and creating higher quality work — as long as they know how to define it.

Leah Phifer is the founder of WhyWork, an employee engagement consultancy, and a former candidate for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District.