“All the lonely people” – tackling the epidemic of loneliness

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK was already experiencing what had been described as an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness.  The various lockdowns and social restrictions that were put in place to reduce the spread of the virus have exacerbated this already troubling situation.

Indeed, according to recent research by the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) have felt lonely some, or all of the time, over the previous month; and 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) felt ashamed about being lonely.

With the huge impact this can have on mental health, it’s no surprise the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was loneliness.

In its new report, “All the lonely people”, published as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation explores the clear links between loneliness and mental health, looking at what it’s like to be lonely, the causes, consequences and the groups of people who are more likely to experience severe and enduring loneliness.

All the lonely people

Through sharing the stories of nine individuals who often or always feel lonely, “All the lonely people” highlights the circumstances, situations and life events that can increase our risk of loneliness. It also investigates how well people understand loneliness and suggests ways that we can respond as individuals and across society.

While it is acknowledged that anyone can feel lonely, there are a number of risk factors that can increase the chances of severe and lasting loneliness that can impact mental health:

  • Being widowed
  • Being single
  • Being unemployed
  • Living alone
  • Having a long-term health condition or disability
  • Living in rented accommodation
  • Being between 16 and 24 years old
  • Being a carer
  • Being from an ethnic minority community
  • Being LGBTQ+

The health and financial impact of loneliness

Loneliness can have a huge impact on health, life expectancy and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. Moreover, it has also been found to be more harmful than obesity. Not only does this have implications for individuals but also for wider society and the economy.

Recent government research estimated that the wellbeing, health and work productivity cost associated with severe loneliness (feeling lonely “often” or “always”) on individuals was around £9,900 per afflicted person per year. Other research has estimated that loneliness costs UK employers between £2.2 and £3.7 billion a year and that an estimated £1,700 per person (2015 values) could be saved over 10 years if action could be taken to reduce loneliness.

Given the significant health impacts and associated costs, the Mental Health Foundation report argues that preventing the development of loneliness should be a key priority and that a greater awareness of the risk factors and triggers needs to be created.

Public understanding but stigma remains

In terms of public understanding, the report asserts that the public has a good understanding of the link between loneliness and mental health. However, there is still significant stigma surrounding loneliness. Of the adults surveyed, 76% thought ‘people often feel ashamed or embarrassed about feeling lonely’. Only 29% of respondents agreed that ‘people who feel lonely are likely to talk about it, if they get the opportunity’. And people who experience loneliness themselves were more likely to recognise this sense of shame.

This stigma makes it difficult for people to talk about due to fears of discrimination or prejudice. Stereotypes about loneliness also still persist which can lead to some lonely people being overlooked. The findings show that despite the public’s understanding, there is a tendency to overlook certain at risk groups such as students, carers and LGBTQ+ people. People also tend to overestimate the link between loneliness and ageing or living in rural areas.

The survey found that people tended to believe that older people were more likely to feel lonely than younger age groups – 63% thought that being older (over 65) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely, whereas only 12% of respondents identified that being younger (aged 16-25) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely. This contradicts recent ONS data, which found that there were higher rates of reported loneliness among younger age groups.

Similarly, people tended to believe people living in rural areas would be more likely to experience loneliness (40% of people thought that living in a rural area could contribute to loneliness, compared to just 23% for living in a city). However, once again, the evidence suggests the opposite, with people living in urban areas reporting higher levels of loneliness than those in rural areas.

The report notes that stereotypes such as these can inhibit people from recognising and responding to their own loneliness, further exacerbate existing stigma and potentially limit the support offered to those who feel lonely.

Broader awareness

The report argues that a wider understanding of the factors that can lead to severe and enduring loneliness is needed to successfully combat the stigma and stereotypes associated with loneliness.

The stories of the individuals who experience loneliness demonstrate just how complex it is and how difficult it is to spot those who may be ‘lonely in a crowd’. It is therefore also important to understand the different barriers to connection for different people. These can be practical (lack of time, access to transport), structural (discrimination or prejudice) or emotional (lack of confidence, anxiety).

The report argues that a broader awareness of these factors could help people to stop blaming themselves for being lonely, encourage creative ways of supporting people and enable tailored support being developed for groups who are particularly at risk of long-term loneliness.

Previous research has also highlighted the importance of tailored approaches and developing approaches that avoid stigma.

Tackling loneliness

While highlighting what individuals can do to help combat loneliness, the Mental Health Foundation also highlights the need for action on the different barriers to connection if it is be tackled long-term. To this end, it has identified five UK-wide policy recommendations to address loneliness in society:

  • taking a strategic approach to loneliness;
  • developing the community resources needed to tackle loneliness;
  • building a greener lived environment that supports social contact;
  • supporting children and young people with interventions in education settings;
  • ensuring that everyone has access to digital communication technology, and the skills to use it, and respecting preferences for non-digital forms of communication.

Each of us can play a part too. By sharing stories of loneliness and shining a spotlight on the issue, we can all help to promote wider awareness and break the stigma of loneliness.


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‘Breaking the bias’ – gender equality and the gig economy

Yesterday marked the 111th International Women’s Day, a global day of celebration for the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But it is also an opportunity to reflect on and further the push towards gender equality.

While there has been much to celebrate, it has been suggested that the pandemic threatens to reverse decades of progress made towards gender equality as women have been hit harder both socially and economically than men. However, the shift in working practices during the pandemic may help to transform the future of work to the benefit of women.

There has been continued growth in the digital platform or gig economy workforce, with many women entering this type of work because of the pandemic. The gig economy has been shown to have the potential to improve gender equality in the economy, but it is not without its challenges when it comes to gender parity, as recent research has highlighted.

A platform for gender equality?

The report from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) highlights that the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) technology and platform or gig work has the potential to create new opportunities for gender equality, but at the same time can reinforce gender stereotypes, sexism and discrimination in the labour market. It found that some of the key attractions of gig work such as its flexibility, are often disadvantageous to women.

The EIGE surveyed almost 5000 workers in the platform economy across 10 countries to understand who they are, why they do platform work, and what challenges they face.  It found that:

  • a higher share of women (45%) than men (40%) among regular platform workers indicated that they worked on digital labour platforms because they were a good way to earn (additional) income;
  • flexibility, expressed as the ability to choose working hours and location, motivated about 43% of women and 35% of men;
  • a higher share of women (36%) than men (28%) said they do platform work because they can combine it with household chores and family commitments;
  • 36% of women started or restarted platform work because of the pandemic, compared to 35% of men.

The flexibility of platform work has consistently been referred to as the main motivating factor for engaging in such work. And this flexibility has been found to be more important for women, particularly in relation to family commitments. In practice, however, the research shows that flexibility is limited, with as many as 36% of women and 40% of men working at night or at the weekend, and many working hours they cannot choose.

On the plus side of the gender equality debate, it seems the gig economy is slightly less gender-segregated than the traditional labour market, with a higher share of men doing jobs usually done by women. For example, traditionally female-dominated sectors such as housekeeping and childcare are more gender-diverse in the gig economy:

  • housework (women: 54%, men: 46%)
  • childcare (women: 61%, men: 39%)
  • data entry (women: 47%, men: 53%)

But the EIGE’s survey also suggests a degree of skills mismatch and overqualification in platform work that affects women in particular. It suggests that highly educated women are more likely to do jobs that do not match their level of education, putting them at greater risk of losing their skills.

Gender bias in AI

The report also shines a light on the issue of gender bias in AI which can be a particular issue in the gig economy where such systems are frequently used.

It argues that gender bias can be embedded in AI by design, reflecting societal norms or the personal biases of those who design the systems. For example, the use of algorithms that are trained with biased data sets perpetuate historically discriminatory hiring practices which can lead to female candidates being discarded.

Platform workers can also be monitored using time-tracking software, which deducts ‘low productivity time’ from pay, increasing ‘digital wage theft’, to which women are more vulnerable.

Considering just 16% of AI professionals in the EU and UK are women – a percentage which decreases with career progression – this is something that needs to be addressed if gender parity in the gig economy, and indeed the entire modern economy, is to be achieved.

Way forward

The EIGE report welcomes new proposed EU legislation to improve the working conditions of platform workers and the EU’s proposed ‘Artificial Intelligence Act’, suggesting this shows promise when it comes to minimising the risk of bias and discrimination in AI. Also highlighted as a positive sign, is the EU’s commitment to train more specialists in AI, especially women and people from diverse backgrounds.

Nevertheless, one of the conclusions of the report is that regulations and policy discussions on platform work are largely gender blind and that action is required on multiple levels to address gender inequalities and discrimination in the gig economy.

To this end, the report recommends that the EU needs to do the following:

  • mainstream gender into the policy framework on AI-related transformation of the labour market;
  • increase the number of women in, and the diversity of, the AI workforce;
  • address the legal uncertainty in the employment status of platform workers to combat disguised employment;
  • address gender inequalities in platform work;
  • ensure that women and men platform workers can access social protection.

There are lessons here for the UK too. Perhaps the fulfilling of these actions will go some way to improving the situation by the time we get to the next International Women’s Day.


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More than growing pains: young people and mental health

woman sleeping on brown armchair

The last few decades have seen increasing rates of mental health disorders among children and young people. But while children and young people’s mental health is currently high on the public agenda, many of these mental health conditions remain unrecognised and untreated.

The NHS conducted a Mental Health Survey for Children and Young People in 2017, interviewing 3,667 children and young people, which was followed up in 2021. The follow-up survey found that 39.2% of 6 to 16 year olds had experienced a decrease in their mental health since 2017, while approximately 52% of 17 to 23 year olds also reported a decrease. Within these last four years, a number of factors appear to have impacted these figures, including the continued rise and prominence of social media platforms, family life, and, of course, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Impact of the pandemic

The beginning of the pandemic marked the closure of all schools, colleges and universities. Not only were young people faced with the anxiety and stress associated with living through a global pandemic, particularly for those who are immunocompromised or have family members who are, but these closures also cut off access to resources for mental health problems. A survey by YoungMinds in January 2021 found that among over 2000 participants who were under the age of 25 in the UK with a history of mental illness, 75% agreed that they were finding the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones, and 67% believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

Peer support groups and face to face services such as counselling that could be accessed through school were closed, or made accessible through the internet or over the phone. While this does offer some kind of continued support, it is not a form of support that works for everyone and many young people were left feeling unsupported. The YoungMinds report emphasised that any future provision must recognise the value of face to face interaction alongside virtual and digital forms of support.

Alongside issues with access to support, school closures  also disrupted routines, which for many people of all ages with mental health problems can be particularly important as a coping mechanism. It has been suggested that being unable to attend school or university in person, or part-time jobs, can lead to a relapse in symptoms where young people relied on these routines. Refusing to undertake typical daily activities such as showering, getting out of bed and eating sufficient meals are some of the effects seen amongst these young people – all which can exacerbate feelings of depression or loneliness.

Role of families

Families have been found to play a vital part in helping young people who are suffering from mental health issues. This has only become more apparent with the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, where young people would most likely be living with their family – whether that be parents, siblings or other relatives or caregivers. Lockdown guidelines that mandated staying at home would leave these young people spending more time with their families, and the closure of other services outwith the home, meant these young people’s households often became their main support system. The NHS follow-up survey found that both family connectedness and family functioning were associated with mental disorder, highlighting the importance of supporting families to enable them to support young people’s mental health.

The Local Government Association has recently published a guide on a “whole household approach” to young people’s mental health, stressing the importance of educating families on how to support their young people. This is highlighted as particularly important when they transition from child services to adult services as many teenagers and young people struggle with the lack of support offered when they are legally considered adults.

Social media

Another big issue affecting young people’s mental health is the use of social media. While there are many reported benefits of social media, particularly in relation to connecting with others, there are also growing concerns about its effects on wellbeing and the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated this. The NHS survey found that, in 2021, half (50.7%) of 11-16 year olds agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and 16.7% using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Those with a probable mental disorder were particularly likely to spend more time on social media than they intended, and girls seem to be more affected that boys.

The survey found that 21.1% of girls reported that likes, comments and shares from social media affected their mood, compared to 12.1% of boys. It also found that double the number of girls than boys spent more time on social media than they meant to. Other research has also highlighted the disproportionate impact on young girls. One study found that constant social media use predicted lower wellbeing in girls only and that these mental health harms may be due to a combination of cyberbullying, and a lack of sleep or exercise. This was not found in the teenage boys interviewed.

Solutions

When addressing mental health problems, it is clear that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. As highlighted in the research, mental health problems can present themselves in a range of ways, and depend on a number of variables.  People from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, or those with additional needs, often face more stigma and can find it more difficult to express their problems or access the correct support for their specific needs.

There have been suggestions for more targeted support for young people and the issues they may be facing, including more investment in schools and social services. Particularly for adolescents who are transitioning to adulthood, it is important to provide continuous support. As highlighted in the NHS Mental Health Survey, more adolescents and young adults (17 to 23 year olds) mentioned a decrease in their mental health than younger people (6 to 16 year olds). Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) notes that the transition from child to adult mental health services tends to begin around three to six months before the individual turns 18, although there can be flexibility.  Perhaps even greater flexibility is required, particularly as we assess the damage left by the pandemic. It is argued that engaging adolescents in the provision of mental health services and a shift towards early intervention and prevention will also be important as we look to build new solutions.


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The future of public health: lessons from the pandemic

woman in white and black polka dot shirt with face mask

The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has impacted all sectors of our society, but none more-so than public health services.

Last month, The Health Foundation hosted a webinar discussing the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health. The webinar drew on the findings from The Kings Fund report “Directors of public health and the COVID-19 pandemic”.  It considered the issues facing public health as a result of COVID-19, and proposed steps to rebuild the healthcare sector and begin tackling the problems left as we slowly move out of the pandemic.

Lack of resources

One of the main themes of the webinar was raised by Shilpa Ross of The Kings Fund, who explained that a lack of resources and shortages in public health existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of longer term reductions to the public health grant meant that health services were not ready for the pandemic, nor for how long it has lasted. This has had a knock-on effect elsewhere in the NHS. A Care Quality Commission report noted that in July 2021, almost 300,000 people were waiting more than 52 weeks to begin hospital treatment.

On top of this, public health has faced staff shortages. Because so many healthcare services are “fishing in the same pond for recruits,” Shilpa explained that it has been especially hard to fill vacancies. In addition, many healthcare workers have experienced short and long-term effects of the virus, and the additional workloads have left many stressed and burnt out. The disruption to education could further delay the training and employment of potential new healthcare workers.

While the NHS has in some cases set up drop-in sessions for support and made efforts to provide even basic support, such as bottled water to aid hydration, these cannot fill the hole created by healthcare staff shortages.

Widening inequalities

Professor Kevin Fenton of Public Health England argued that “inequalities have defined the pandemic,” and would be the legacy of the last year and a half. A 2020 report by the Institute of Health Equity, commissioned by The Health Foundation, found that in England members of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (BAME) were more likely to be affected by COVID-19. The report attributed this partly to people in these groups living in more deprived areas, working in occupations with a higher exposure risk to the virus (such as healthcare or customer service roles), and in some cases living with multiple generations in their home (complicating self-isolation). The authors contended that while inequalities in social and economic conditions were present before the pandemic, they contributed to the unequal death toll resulting from COVID-19.

These inequalities have widened, partly due to the shortage of resources and staff. It has only grown more difficult to address the ever increasing numbers of people needing treatment, both urgent and non-urgent. As a result, the most vulnerable in society have fallen by the wayside.

Changing how public health works

The webinar also discussed how public health can move forward as the country slowly returns to a new form of normal. In addition to the restructuring of Public Health England, a new tax – the Health and Social Care Levy – will put an additional £12 billion into health and social care over the next three years. However, money alone is not enough – the webinar participants agreed that the infrastructures and inner workings of public health must evolve as we move towards a more efficient system of working.

Professor Fenton stressed the importance of engaging with local communities, and that the response towards the pandemic going forward must be grounded in their experiences, and what they need from both the public health system and also local authorities. He noted that while there may be pressure to go back to the way things operated before the pandemic, we must move forward: by understanding what worked and what didn’t, progress and better services can be achieved. Shilpa Ross added that a more targeted and tailored approach to health inequalities has provided more significant results in terms of vaccination and testing rates. This has in turn raised levels of trust within communities that public health teams may not have engaged with before the pandemic. All of this, however, takes up precious time.

Professor Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire County Council, highlighted the importance of prevention not only for COVID-19 moving forward but other health conditions.  He stated that they must be tackled at a place where they can stop others continuing to be affected, in addition to treating those who are currently being affected.  Robin Tuddenham, Accountable Officer for NHS Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group, agreed, and stressed that problems like homelessness and poverty should not be seen as separate from health but rather as important factors in the prevention of ill health.

Concluding thoughts

Highlighting the underlying issues and difficulties affecting public health before the pandemic is one step towards addressing them.

The webinar demonstrated that the pandemic has shifted how public health is perceived and valued. It has reminded all of us how important access to efficient, well-supported and high quality healthcare really is. Those working in decision-making roles in the healthcare sector are clearly looking towards the next steps for public health and how to give people the highest quality and most efficient care possible. With this in mind, the pandemic may have created a stepping stone towards a better healthcare system.


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Supporting universities could be key to economic and social recovery

“Support for universities means support for businesses and jobs, for key workers, and for levelling up the UK’s towns and regions.” (Universities UK)

Universities have long been positively associated with economic growth, not only for the regional areas in which they are situated but also for neighbouring regions as a result of spillover effects. The total income of the UK university sector has been estimated at around £40 billion per year – 1.8% of national income.

Many universities are important anchors in their local areas, supporting community activity in various ways and working in collaboration with smaller businesses. And they have played a vital role in the response to the current pandemic through medical research, sharing of resources and community wellbeing efforts. 

With widespread agreement over ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom’, it is no surprise there have been calls to ensure investment in this sector is a central priority. In forecasting the potential impact of UK universities over the next five years, recent research from Universities UK suggests that a well-supported university sector could be key to the economic and social recovery from the pandemic.

Supporting people

The Universities UK report outlines the ways in which universities support people, including by providing a pipeline of key workers and enabling upskilling for new jobs. It is projected that by May 2026, more than 191,000 nurses, 84,000 medical specialists and 188,000 teachers will graduate from UK universities. And it is suggested that these are likely to be underestimates. If these forecasts are accurate, the potential for universities to help address the skills gaps and shortages that the UK faces is clear, particularly as nursing and teaching have featured on the hard-to-fill and skills shortage vacancies lists.

It is also projected that demand for higher level skills will continue rising into the late 2020s. In the shorter term, 79% of employers with more than 25 staff anticipate a need for upskilling in the next 12 months, rising to 84% for firms with over 100 staff. No region sees the need for upskilling fall below 60%. In addition to educating students, universities are responding to this need with training and upskilling programmes tailored to employers and the community. Forecasts for each of the UK nations include:

  • universities in Northern Ireland will deliver the equivalent of 410 years of professional development training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next five years (and 90 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • Scottish universities will provide 3,490 years of training by May 2026 (over 600 years’ worth in the next year)
  • Welsh universities will deliver the equivalent of nearly 4,800 years of upskilling in the next five years (over 880 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • universities in England will provide the equivalent of over 549 centuries (54,936 years) of training by May 2026, and 10,580 years’ worth in the next year alone

As has been argued, “part of the effect of universities on growth is mediated through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation”. 

Local economic impact

The local economic impact of universities is widely recognised. Universities have consistently attracted funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impacts and the report forecasts that these will have a value of over £2.5 billion in local places across the UK over the next five years.

It is suggested that many of these projects will also attract additional funding from universities and businesses, resulting in even greater local impact.

Universities also have a direct impact on their local economies as large employers. It is estimated that 1.27% of all people in employment in the UK work for a university. Other recent analysis suggests that universities typically support up to one additional job in the immediate local economy for every person they directly employ.

The impact of universities on local procurement is also emphasised, highlighting the example of the Leeds Anchors Network, which is looking at opportunities to direct spending locally.  The report suggests that if anchor institutions in Leeds shift 10% of their total spending to suppliers in the region this could be worth up to £196 million each year.

Collaboration and contributing to research

The report also considers the role of universities in partnering with business, including providing advice/training and enabling cutting edge research and innovation.

It is forecast that UK universities will be commissioned to provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits over the next five years, ranging from specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects. It is also expected that universities will attract national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and non-academic organisations, estimated to be worth £21.7 billion over the next five years.

The report highlights that this research leads to impact in priority sectors. In the East Midlands, for example, over a third of competitive funding received by research organisations since 2014 was for clean growth and infrastructure projects with businesses, a higher proportion than any other region. In Yorkshire 85% of funding has been for manufacturing, materials and mobility projects, and 53% of funding in London has been in the area of ageing, health and nutrition.

Universities have also been shown to be effective in commercialising their research via spinouts, an area that has a great deal of potential to contribute to economic growth.

Despite all universities conducting cutting-edge research, there are regional disparities in research and innovation investment. And there has been historic underfunding in some regions which has led to inequalities in economic performance across the UK, putting the levelling up agenda at risk. The report therefore argues that “research and innovation policy needs to be designed alongside, and be closely aligned to, local economic development policy.”

Of course, the higher education sector hasn’t been immune to recent financial cuts and the expected losses for the sector are “highly uncertain” as highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And the recent announcement of the 50% cut to university arts funding will come as a big blow to the already suffering creative industries sector. The decision, made in a bid to redirect spending to subjects considered a ‘strategic priority’ by the government such as medicine and STEM, is a concern if it is to have a detrimental impact on the arts industry talent pipeline.

Final thoughts

Depending on the losses the university sector experiences, it may be that the five year forecasts presented in the Universities UK report do not come to fruition.

However, as the intention of the government is to ‘level up’ and create a ‘place strategy’, surely universities have to play a central role given their huge economic and social potential. And that means investment, not cuts. As the Universities UK report highlights:

“World-class innovation and research assets need support. Training highly skilled people requires investment. Ensuring the benefits of both of these are felt equally around the UK will depend on robust policy and funding decisions.”


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Fair and flexible labour market: building back better

Much has been reported on the recovery from the pandemic and how things can be ‘built back better’ but what about those groups that have been disproportionately affected?

Recent research has highlighted the unequal impacts the pandemic has had on particular groups within the labour market.  From the lowest paid to part-time workers and women, research has considered how things could be moved forward so that those that have borne the brunt of the economic impact are not left behind. In this blog, we take a look at some of these publications, each of which highlights the need to create a fairer and more flexible labour market.

Low paid workers: new settlement needed

The Resolution Foundation’s latest annual Low pay Britain report has warned that the low paid are at greatest risk of becoming unemployed once the furlough scheme ends in September.

Despite the positive backdrop for low paid workers in the run up to the crisis with a fast rising minimum wage following the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) in 2016 – which has driven the first sustained fall in low pay for 40 years – the Covid-19 crisis has adversely affected the low paid to a much greater degree than the higher paid. The research showed that workers ranked in the bottom fifth for pay were three times more likely to have lost jobs, hours or have been furloughed than the top paid fifth. Low paid workers are also more likely to work in the sectors most impacted by the pandemic – hospitality, leisure and retail.

As the economy reopens, however, so too do the sectors most restricted over the past year which improves the prospects for low paid workers. Indeed, they are now returning to work fastest. In April alone, almost a million workers came off furlough – more than half of them employees in hospitality, leisure or retail.

But while the report highlights the positive prospects for the low paid, it also addresses several key issues that policy makers will need to consider if the low paid are to benefit from the recovery. Major risks for the low paid are identified:

  • higher unemployment
  • decreasing job security
  • infringements of labour market rights

It argues that low paid workers’ relative unemployment risk after the pandemic is likely to be particularly high given the possibility of structural change concentrated on low paying sectors. And if unemployment rises, it is noted that job quality and infringements of labour market rights are likely to deteriorate.

The Resolution Foundation calls for a new settlement for low paid workers, arguing that “policy makers must look beyond the minimum wage – to job security and labour market regulation – for ways to ensure it’s a recovery that benefits low paid workers”.

Part-time employees: must be included in the recovery

As we move towards the end of restrictions and of the furlough scheme, cracks have also started to emerge for part-time workers, who have been “clinging on in a volatile labour market” according to recent analysis by the Timewise Foundation.

This report notes that part-time employees are one demographic that hasn’t had the same level of scrutiny in the literature as other disproportionality affected groups.

The experience and outlook for part-time employees appears “particularly bleak” according to the report. Despite the furlough scheme being effective in protecting millions from unemployment, it is argued that it is actually masking significant challenges – most notably for part-time workers. The disproportionate impact on part-timers has seen them face higher levels of reduced hours and redundancy. They are also less likely than full-timers to return to normal hours and to hang on to roles during lockdowns.

Evidence shows 44% of part-time employees who were away from work during the first lockdown continued to be away from work between July and September 2020, when restrictions began to temporarily ease. This compares to 33.6% of full-time employees.

The majority (80%) of part-time workers also do not want to work more hours but as Timewise data shows, only 8% of jobs are advertised as part-time – “simply too big a problem to ignore”.

In response to the analysis, a vision for change is set out, focusing on creating a fair and flexible labour market that will:

  • support those in everyday jobs to access flexibility
  • help the millions of people who want or need to work flexibly to find flexible opportunities
  • remove some of the barriers to support those trapped in low-paid work and unable to progress

Women: promoting a gendered recovery

Women have also been disproportionately affected in the labour market, particularly as they are often employed in low-paid and part-time jobs within shutdown sectors such as hospitality and retail, which are notoriously characterised by job insecurity.

This was highlighted in a recent briefing paper by Close the Gap and Engender which looked at the impacts of Covid-19 on women’s wellbeing, mental health, and financial security in Scotland. The paper confirms pre-existing evidence that women have been particularly affected by rising financial precarity and anxiety as a result.

The closure of schools and nurseries and increased childcare disproportionately affected women’s employment and women’s propensity to work part-time places them at greater risk of job disruption. The data shows that young women and disabled women are being particularly impacted by the pandemic.

Key findings include that women are more likely than men to be receiving less support from their employer since the first lockdown, and were significantly more likely than men to report increased financial precarity as a result of the crisis – this was particularly the case for young women and disabled women. Timewise points to the potential for this to add to a growing child poverty crisis.

Similarly to the above reports, which call for the specific affected groups to be included in any future employment strategy, this report concludes by highlighting the importance of a gender-sensitive approach to rebuilding the labour market and economy.

Final thoughts

While furlough has undoubtedly protected many within those groups who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, this is only temporary and as all three reports above suggest, these groups are at greatest risk of unemployment and job insecurity when the scheme finally ends.

The research clearly calls for a fairer and more flexible labour market with stronger and better rights for all workers. Failure to address this in the attempt to build back better will only serve to increase the inequalities that already exist in the labour market.


The reports highlighted in this blog post have recently been added to The Knowledge Exchange (TKE) database. Subscribers to TKE information service have direct access to all of the abstracts on our database, with most also providing the full text of journal articles and reports. To find out more about our services, please visit our website: https://www.theknowledgeexchange.co.uk/

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Living and working in an ‘age of ambiguity’

The pandemic is having a wide ranging impact on all aspects of people’s lives. From the massive shift to home working for many to the furlough scheme for others, employees have experienced a fundamental shift in the way they work and live.

According to a recent survey of workers, employee happiness has declined and there has been an increase in presenteeism during the pandemic, as the boundaries between home and work, which were once certain, have become blurred.

Blurred lines and a culture of presenteeism

The survey by Aviva, polled 2,000 employees in February 2020 and again in August 2020, finding that most people were happier before the pandemic and that a culture of presenteeism had emerged. Key findings included:

  • More than half (52%) agree the boundaries between their work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred – up from 40% in February.
  • The number of employees who are completely happy almost halved: 20% in February vs. 13% in August.
  • 43% of employees ranked their mental health between ‘very bad’ and ‘fair’, compared with 38% in February.
  • 84% say that they would carry on working even if they felt unwell.

A significant trend of presenteeism and the ‘always on’ culture was highlighted by the survey. The increased uncertainty and heightened anxiety has led to many employees working longer hours and taking fewer sick days. In February 2020, 67% of employees took zero sick days over a three month period; this increased to 84% in August.

Employees may feel the need to prove their productivity while working from home, particularly if they feel their jobs are at risk. But such e-presenteeism is likely to have a negative impact on productivity and inevitably mental wellbeing. According to the report “the ambiguity experienced is compounding behaviour that is detrimental to long-term employee wellbeing.”

Young people (18-25) were found to be particularly affected, with 53% reporting feeling anxious compared to the national average of 34% and 17% ranking their mental health as bad compared to an average of 11% across all age groups.

There have been changes in employee self-determination across the board and the main priorities for employees have shifted as they are increasingly looking for a greater work-life balance over salary – a trend which has increased since the pandemic struck.

Employer considerations

Most employers have implemented new ways of supporting employees, which has been welcomed, but the survey highlights that more needs to be done. Despite a majority of employees believing employers have made some effort to adapt, there is still a loss of motivation among employees. Just 15% of employees agree that their employer is trying really hard to understand what motivates them and only a quarter (26%) agree their employer is genuinely concerned about their wellbeing.

With research confirming a conclusive link between wellbeing and productivity – employees are 13% more productive when happy – no organisation can afford to ignore the issue of employee wellbeing.

Indeed, employee wellbeing was already rising up the corporate agenda pre-Covid-19 but the pandemic has propelled it further into focus for many organisations.

It is argued that a new partnership is required between employees and employers. Personal control surpasses employer control when it comes to what employees want and there is clear evidence that more tailored support, rather than a one size fits all approach, is required.

Aviva’s report argues that “now more than ever there is a case for employers to embrace the ‘Age of Ambiguity’ to support their workforce with their mental health, physical and financial wellbeing.” To this end, Aviva recommends five ‘employer considerations’:

  • Understand how they can deliver on emerging flexibility needs.
  • Personalise mental health and wellbeing support.
  • Create sense of purpose, clarity and autonomy in the workplace.
  • Prepare workers for fuller working lives and the transition from work to retirement.
  • Create more targeted interventions by understanding personality types.

Towards a happier future

As all personality types were found to desire flexibility, it is suggested that prioritising employee wellbeing as a ‘need to have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’ and incorporating flexibility into working life could be a way forward for businesses when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best workers.

The ‘age of ambiguity’ could be the perfect opportunity for businesses to make the necessary changes to support their employees, helping them to improve their physical, mental and financial wellbeing – for mutual benefit.

The pandemic has thrust the world of work into a period of intense change and uncertainty, but many of the trends were already underway, particularly the shift in employee outlook. Employees’ desire for flexibility continues to grow as they seek a better work-life balance and there is no sign of this abating. The Aviva survey has shone a spotlight on this trend and suggests that “employers who embrace their employees’ desire for long term flexibility will see the benefit of a healthier and happier workforce” – leading to a happier future for all.


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Are ‘dark stores’ bringing some much needed light to the high street?

As we pass the first anniversary of the initial lockdown and look towards opening things up again, will we see a change in footfall trends in favour of the high street as people yearn to get out again, or will it continue to experience a downward trend?

Judging by pre-pandemic trends, it would seem that high street businesses will need to do more than just open back up to entice people back to the high street. Indeed, there were signs of diversification on the high street before the pandemic in response to declining footfall. And the pandemic has led to many more innovating to survive the current challenges, such as creating pop-up ecommerce centres. Perhaps such moves could help save the high street, albeit not as we know it.

A downward trajectory

The recent news of permanent closures of big-named high street stores such as Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins after the collapse of Arcadia Group, and the closures of more John Lewis outlets, suggest a bleak outlook for the high street. And the pandemic has spurred the worst decline on record.

Recent figures from PwC reveal that an average of 48 stores, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed every day in 2020 – a total of more than 17,500 outlets.

This may be the worst decline on record but it is also a continuation of the downward trajectory that the traditional high street was already on. And it has been argued that this is actually a reflection of things that happened pre-pandemic, with its full impact ‘yet to be felt’.

In its quarterly footfall monitor, the British Retail Consortium highlighted in May 2019 that high street footfall had fallen by 1% year-on-year and that vacancy rates on local high-streets had risen to 10.2%, equivalent to one in ten shops having succumbed to the high street crisis. This was the highest vacancy rate in four years and it continued to increase in the next quarter.

Support through a crisis

It has become clear that trends before the pandemic have just been accelerated by it. The continued growth in online shopping and the impact of government policy costs such as business rates are just a couple of the causes of the decline in high streets over the years that see little sign of abating. But the urgency of the current situation has seen a huge increase in government support across the board which has helped many businesses stay afloat as they try and wait out the storm.

In December 2020, the UK government announced it would invest up to £830 million from the Future High Streets Fund in local high streets across England to help them recover from the pandemic and drive long-term growth.

In September 2020, funding was secured for England’s historic high streets through the £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) programme, which is delivered by Historic England. The aim of this is to help transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, work places and community spaces, restoring local historic character and improving public realm.

And just this month, the government has announced a series of new measures to support a safe and successful reopening of high streets and seaside resorts, including a £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help councils boost tourism, improve green spaces and provide more outdoor seating areas, markets and food stall pop-ups. This builds on the £50 million Reopening High Streets Safely Fund announced in May 2020. Similar support schemes have been introduced by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of course, this hasn’t been enough to save the high street stores that have announced closures. But it brings to the fore once more that high streets are about more than just shops as each funding programme highlights the aim of transforming high streets into vibrant mixed-use places where consumers can enjoy social experiences.

Adapting to survive – dark stores bringing light to the high street

As the PwC study suggests, it is really about keeping up with consumer behaviours that is the challenge for retail, perhaps even more so in times of crisis. And there have been many examples of high street retailers adapting to survive.

With the huge increase in online shopping during the pandemic, many manufacturing and distribution centres were operating at maximum capacity which led to some retailers unlocking the potential of their local high street stores to provide local distribution hubs, known as ‘dark stores’.

Lush is one company that changed the way they used their retail space so they could continue to use it while their stores were closed. It created Lush Local, a pop-up e-commerce centre which used the shop as a local distribution centre so they could fulfil local orders and not let their current stock go to waste.

Some businesses have also partnered with others to make use of local unused space such as Crosstown Doughnuts which have been trialling the use of dark stores in Cambridge and Walthamstow, partnering with independent operators so it can provide on-demand deliveries and collections to customers.

As ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers try to adapt to support their online capability, providing efficient local deliveries, at the same time as utilising their physical retail space, the ‘dark store’ trend may be here to stay. Pre-pandemic, it was reported that using dark stores and offering click and collect can reduce delivery costs and increase profit margins. Analysis showed that if deliveries from dark stores increase by 50%, profit margins could grow by 7% as a result of lower delivery costs and higher delivery throughput compared to conventional stores (while also not affecting store operations).

And it has been suggested that this model can be further adapted to provide ‘hybrid stores’ as shops re-open. These hybrid stores enable local stores to combine space for their fulfilment centre with their physical shop so consumers can still benefit from the tangible experience offered in store that can’t be replicated online.

Final thoughts

Only time will tell if recent innovations will have the desired effect. What is clear is that the rate of change cannot continue at the pace it was before the pandemic if high streets are to have a fighting chance. Dark and hybrid stores could be part of the answer. But much more is needed.

The most successful high streets, it is argued, will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing as they focus on the experiential side of things, because, in the words of retail guru Mary Portas, “vibrant, innovative, socially dynamic high streets will help this country not just heal, but thrive.”


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“The infrastructure of everyday life” – has the time come for the foundational economy?

The last few years has seen growing interest in what has been termed the ‘foundational economy’ and its potential value for achieving economic security and social sustainability. Accounting for around 44% of UK employment, it has been argued that supporting this section of the economy could ultimately improve productivity. And the current pandemic has placed even more emphasis on the importance of the foundational economy – the part of the economy that cannot be shut down.

What is the foundational economy?

The foundational economy provides universal basic services built from the activities which provide the essential goods and services for everyday life, regardless of the social status of consumers. Primarily delivered locally, these goods and services encompass infrastructures, utilities, food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. Because of this, it is thought to have considerable potential to regenerate the areas where the local economy is relatively weak – perhaps the perfect solution for the levelling up agenda?

The initial manifesto for the foundational economy from researchers at the University of Manchester resulted from dissatisfaction with generic industrial and regional policy focused on promoting competition and markets; with success measured in terms of job creation and GDP growth. According to the manifesto, the foundational economy is “the mundane production of everyday necessities” which is taken for granted by all members of the population. As such, it is often also referred to as the ‘sheltered’ or ‘invisible’ economy.

Scale and value

In providing the infrastructure for everyday life, the foundational economy is also very large. It has been noted that in all European countries, it directly employs around 40% of the workforce. In the UK, around 44% of the workforce is employed in foundational activities. In Germany, it is 41% and Italy it is 37%. The value of foundational output and volume and diversity of foundational employment is therefore much larger than in high-tech and tradeable services, with which policymakers are determinedly focused on.

Other measures of value have also been highlighted, such as household expenditure. The initial manifesto notes the importance of weekly spend on the foundational economy with nearly 30% of all household expenditure going on foundational activities.

Despite providing vital services, and employing a significant portion of the UK population, the foundational economy is marked by low-tech, low-wage, part time and often precarious employment and is potentially at risk from automation, despite the significant ‘human’ element to many of the different job roles which make up this part of the economy. Within society a lot of foundational jobs are still considered by many (often who don’t work in the sector) to be “jobs you move on from” where in reality, for many people, particularly women and migrant workers, this isn’t the case.

But where would we be without these roles providing for all citizens’ basic needs? Job creation and GDP growth may suggest a successful economy but this, it is argued, does not show the wellbeing of all society or sustainability. In the face of current, and indeed future, crises, it seems perceptions may be starting to change as more and more people become concerned with health and wellbeing and the environment. Indeed, it has long been argued that necessity is only recognised in times of crises.

Has Covid-19 shone a vital light on the foundational economy?

While many sectors were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the foundational economy remained open as it was considered systemically important for meeting basic needs. The pandemic has highlighted that this part of the economy is needed at all times, including at times of crisis.

Healthcare staff have become frontline heroes and food delivery drivers are recognised as key workers. But this enhanced status has also highlighted the poor pay and conditions of many key workers delivering these essential goods and services and the inherent inequality that exists in society.

Just like other crises, from natural disasters to large scale economic shocks, these bear most heavily on the poor and vulnerable. The pandemic has shown that these inequalities must be addressed so that basic everyday services are more equally available.

The pandemic has also shown that economies are about more than market economies. It has been argued that there needs to be a move towards meeting a population’s basic needs rather than on individual consumption.

Way forward

Advocates of the foundational economy argue that public policy should focus on securing the supply of basic goods and services for all citizens in a socially responsible way.

The 2020 manifesto for the foundational economy from The Foundational Economy Collective argues for the renewal of the foundational economy with a ten-point programme, including proposals related to:

  • better health and care
  • housing and energy
  • food supply
  • social licensing
  • tax reform
  • disintermediation of investment from pension funds and insurance companies
  • shorter supply chains in foundational commodities
  • citizen engagement
  • better technical and administrative capacity at all levels of government
  • international constructive responsibility

It has been widely agreed that a return to business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.


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From rainbows to Banksy – have lockdowns created a new appreciation for the value of the arts?

Cultural and creative sectors are among the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent analysis suggests that jobs at risk in the sector range from 0.8 to 5.5% of employment across OECD regions. In the UK, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector saw the second largest economic decline of all sectors of the economy during the pandemic.

While the negative impact of crises is justifiably focused on, there are often positive opportunities to arise from such shocks such as widespread collaboration and innovative behaviours to find solutions. Indeed, the current pandemic is no different. Amidst the myriad of reports of the dire economic impact emerges a much more colourful picture of a resurgence in arts and creativity across not only the country but the world.

Rising creativity

From the abundance of rainbows displayed in windows across the UK to singers and musicians entertaining their neighbours from their balconies in Italy and elsewhere, the global pandemic has led to many turning to the arts and creative activities in a bid to help each other’s wellbeing and to thank those on the frontline for their heroic efforts to protect us all.

Many young people found new ways to express themselves through creativity during lockdown, whether drawing or making things, creating music or videos to share on social media. Examples of what young people in England have been creating are presented in Arts Council England’s project The Way I See It .

All sorts of artists from across the globe have been sharing their coronavirus-inspired artwork via social media.

The infamous street artist Banksy has also been joining in, creating a variety of new work from rats encouraging people to wear face masks on the London Underground to a piece paying tribute to NHS workers in Southampton General Hospital.

And the industry itself has had to get creative finding new ways to reach people. Many cultural and creative organisations have moved to delivering digital content to keep audiences engaged, which has opened the door for many future innovations. Organisations and individuals have also been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience:

“I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

Economic and social value

While there has generally been a need to make the case for the value of arts and creative activity, whether in education or business, perhaps the impact of lockdowns has afforded the opportunity for everyone to recognise their value both at times of crisis and as part of recovery.

The sector is already an economic driver and source of innovation. In 2019, the economic output of arts and culture was equivalent to 0.5% of the whole UK economy. And despite the immediate economic impact of the pandemic, there is hope that the sector will recover quickly, albeit with significant government support. Recent research from the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) predicts that the sector’s Gross Value Added (GVA) will return to its pre-lockdown level of £13.5bn by 2022 with the help of the Culture Recovery Fund, a full year earlier than was anticipated without government intervention. The research also shows the sector is set to be worth £15.2 billion to the economy by 2025.   

As well as contributing to the economic recovery, the sector can also play a crucial role in the social recovery as indicated by the many examples highlighted above.

As non-educators, many home-schooling parents have moved towards cultural and creative enrichment for their children. It has been well-documented that arts and creative activities can help improve mental health and wellbeing and at a time when there are grave concerns about young people’s mental health, surely this can only be a good thing.

As previous pandemics and disasters have consistently shown, a major focus of recovery needs to be on mental health; something that the arts and creative industries can clearly help with.

Final thoughts

At time when we might all feel like social distancing from ourselves, the arts and creative activities can provide an escape for everyone. The value of arts and culture, both economically and socially, cannot be underestimated. Perhaps the most positive outcome of the current pandemic for these sectors, will be the newfound appreciation of them from all walks of life which will hopefully translate into decision-makers thinking twice before laying the brunt of budget cuts at their door.


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