Monday, May 23, 2011

Did something other than sight-see in Denmark

I was lucky to spend today attending a workshop on “Health, Work and the Workplace” at the Aarhus School of Business (academic economists use an odd definition of "lucky").

Besides the opportunity to interact with lots of researchers with similar interests, there was an opportunity to hear about some fantastic data that are available to Danish researchers. In particular, social scientists are Aarhus University have access to survey data sets with personal identifiers that can be linked to social registry data on jobs, social insurance, and even health care utilization.

The conference featured several studies that linked survey data on perceptions of work conditions, such as exposure to physical and health hazards, workplace policies, work schedules, job satisfaction, supervisor practices, and the like, with more objective information on earnings and job turnover as well as long-term information on these outcomes. Several papers showed how bad work conditions and practices were associated with worse health outcomes for employees. Another paper showed how some of those policies hurt companies by increasing turnover. Although the emphasis was on how health worked through and was affected by these workplace conditions, it’s easy to imagine lots of additional research that could be done.

All of the research focused on outcomes in developed economies in Europe and the U.S. These countries all feature relatively strong protections for workers’ health. In the case of the European countries, workers also had fairly uniform access to quality health care. Despite these protections and supports, there was still consistent evidence throughout many of the papers that certain types of working conditions, such as holding a job with high physical demands, being exposed to job insecurity, and even having to work for a “toxic” boss, takes its toll on people’s physical and psychological health.

At this point, the research seems best poised to help us refine our understanding of how health and work outcomes are determined, borrowing insights from two related fields. It is also likely to help us understand the possible consequences of work intensification at jobs as employers downsize, “rightsize,” and shift more risks to workers. These policies may have immediate benefits for employers’ bottom lines, but the research at the conference suggests that they may be costly in the long run. Worse, these costs may be external to firms and may appear years after firms take certain actions, giving the firms few incentives to mitigate them.

We already know that economic outcomes for many workers have deteriorated over the last decade and especially through the Great Recession. Regrettably, the results from the workshop suggest an additional mechanism by which workers may have been made worse off by employer restructuring.