Recognising the social determinants of work: How mainstream employment support must change to meet the COVID unemployment crisis



The economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a crisis of unemployment. Current estimates predict a rate of 6% in summer 2021, with the potential to peak at 8% before the end of the year. And the nature of the downturn means that certain sections of the labour force are bearing a much larger burden. Vulnerable jobs are disproportionately concentrated in hospitality, entertainment and recreation; sectors that women, young people and BAME individuals are more likely to be employed in. Jobs are also more likely to be at risk in low income regions, exacerbating existing place-based inequalities.

Even as the economy begins to recover, it is likely that the new labour market will look very different. The pandemic is accelerating the decline of high streets and the rise of home working, all while other major shifts continue: the rise in unpredictable and insecure work, the decline of unions among young people, and the UK’s fundamental economic shift from manufacturing to the service economy.

Many of the potential millions who lose their job due to the pandemic will not only need to find new work amidst a period of historic uncertainty, but also transition to a different career path.

In this period, jobseekers will be especially vulnerable to losing confidence in themselves and hope for the future. It is vital therefore that mainstream employment services are ready to not only match people with job vacancies, but support their self-efficacy – their belief in what they can do – and motivation in the meantime. Or else risk furthering the disadvantage faced by already overburdened sections of the labour force.


Is Mainstream Employment Support Exacerbating Inequalities?

Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, our mainstream employment services were poorly set up to support people to make successful long-term career transitions, or maintain confidence and aspiration in the face of a prolonged period without adequate work. There is insufficient investment in helping people to develop their ability and ambition to find work that will meet their real personal and financial needs. Support tends to be transactional, with set requirements met by sanctions for non-compliance, and large caseloads make it difficult for staff to understand individual circumstances or personalise their responses, despite Jobcentre staff often being all too aware that jobseekers need more tailored support.

Ultimately, jobseekers lose hope; pushed to take unsuitable jobs or sanctioned into debt, ill-health, poverty and crime by the very system that is supposed to be helping them. At the same time, employment support professionals experience emotional distress and moral injury as they are forced to follow rules that they can see fail to offer lasting solutions.

The cycle of inadequate work and joblessness created by this kind of employment support is illustrated below.


Cycle of inadequate work and joblessness


The increase in mental health issues associated with the uncertainty people are experiencing during the pandemic means that job coaches are now more likely to be taking on complex cases with inadequate training. And the potential lack of vacancies in the jobs market means there is a greater need for employment services to support creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

In addition, with accelerating digitisation – which has the potential to greatly improve the support offer – there is a risk of services leaving people behind or losing the personal, tailored aspects of their support as they aim towards efficiency rather than transformation.


Recognising the Social Determinants of Work: Good Help

 In order for any of us to take action towards improving our lives, like finding new or better work, we need a foundation of confidence and purpose; confidence that we are able to act and succeed (known as self-efficacy) and a sense of purpose that provides motivation as we pursue goals. This is the foundational theory of Good Help, backed by decades of social research.

Our degree of confidence and sense of purpose is informed by the circumstances of our lives – things like our social networks, financial means and access to resources. When we have confidence and purpose and are able to take action, we can improve our life circumstances, which in turn enables greater confidence and purposefulness. This is represented in the Cycle of Action:


Cycle of Action


For many people, becoming unemployed means getting into debt and financial distress, with resulting mental ill-health and housing insecurity. Such shocks to life circumstances have a significant effect on confidence and motivation, meaning that the positive cycle of action can start moving in the opposite direction:


Positive vs negative cycles of action


Current employment support arrangements can potentially exacerbate inequalities because they fail to acknowledge that a person’s life circumstances, and resulting values and beliefs, will be a key driver of their ability to transition to new work.

This is what we refer to as the social determinants of work. Providing Good Help means recognising this and taking deliberate steps to change people’s life circumstances and support their confidence and motivation towards finding new and better work. The positive spiral below shows how this kind of support can help people escape the cycle of inadequate work and joblessness, enabling them to make sustainable improvements to their situation, gaining better and better employment over time.


The positive spiral of enabling employment support


The ‘social determinants of health’ are now well established and highly influential in the NHS, but the social determinants of work are much less influential in our employment support system, despite a huge amount of social research which evidences the influence of people’s confidence, purpose and life circumstances on their ability to succeed.

Rather, the social determinants of work tend to be reduced to the idea of ‘barriers’ to employment. While this goes some way to recognising the influence of life circumstances, a focus on barriers pre-supposes that a person has the confidence and motivation required to find employment, and only needs practical obstacles to be removed. This fails to account for the importance of those internal factors, and the relationship between them and life circumstances.

Supporting people’s confidence and motivation within the context of their life circumstances is essential if we are to help people successfully get through a period of unemployment towards a job in the new work landscape. And it is all the more important when we are facing a tougher jobs market and potential increase in complex and challenging cases being taken on by Jobcentres.


 Bridging the Gap Between Losing and Finding New Work

For many people who become unemployed in the wake of Covid-19 there will simply not be work immediately available, or the work that is available will not meet their financial needs or existing skills and experience. It is expected to take at least three years for the UK economy to recover. This will obviously be an incredibly challenging time for the potential millions facing job loss. They will need support from an employment system which helps them to:

  • adapt to the new labour market in terms of knowledge and skills
  • maintain their mental health and build self-efficacy as they transition to new work
  • see this as an opportunity to design the next phase of their life.

When people lose their job, especially when there might not be equivalent work available, it is often a deeply traumatic time. People’s confidence in their ability to change their situation – their self-efficacy – can decline sharply if they do not receive support that is explicitly designed to bolster it:


Path towards employment without Good Help


Good Help can help a person maintain and build their level of self-efficacy, bridging the gap between losing their job and finding a new one so that they aren’t left disadvantaged in the recovered jobs market.


Bridge towards employment with Good Help


This is what we think our employment support systems need to be reconfigured to do; ensuring that those who lose their job are not left with diminished self-efficacy that impedes their ability to find new work that meets their needs.


Six Design Principles to Reconfigure Mainstream Employment Support

There are six Good Help design principles that we believe are needed to reconfigure mainstream employment support services so that they help people cross the unemployment bridge. Support should be:

  1. Strengths Based
    Instead of reducing the focus to the ‘barriers’ to work, any support should seek to understand the full circumstances of people’s lives, prioritising people’s economic and personal outcomes over simply filling vacancies. Support must not be shaped by the traditional job seeking targets of the ‘claimant commitment’, but by an understanding that those seeking work are already skilled and valuable people.
  2. Focussed on helping people find meaningful work
    If we are to shift from the negative cycle of inadequate work and joblessness to the positive spiral of enabling employment support, support must move away from simply acting as the conduit between job-seekers and vacancies, It should explicitly enable people to engage in the work they need, expand their aspirations and put the scaffolding in place for them to find work which is meaningful, as defined by each individual.
  3. Delivered through enabling networks
    Connection – to other services, peers, information, training and opportunities – is the foundation of employment support. These networks can be enabling or disabling. They can expand or erode people’s self-efficacy and opportunities. Covid-19 is fundamentally changing how we can make connections with these vital support structures, and we need to make sure these support networks remain not just open and available to as many people as possible, but actively configured to welcome people and support them along their journey.
  4. Frontloaded
    If we are to avoid the impact of Covid-19 being greatest on those who have fewest resources, support during the first six months of unemployment must be intensive, comprehensive and personalised for those who need it.
  5. Along the whole Journey
    Good Help recognises that progress is rarely linear. To move forward through unemployment, especially against the backdrop of a highly challenging jobs market, you must be able to track changes long term, to prepare for setbacks and celebrate success. Understanding the sustainability of interventions means measuring impacts over time, and considering markers such as household income, poverty rates as well as job starts.
  6. Build people’s self-efficacy
    People’s belief they can get one or other job is for most people, most of the time, a prerequisite for whether they will attempt to search or apply for jobs. Unfortunately, as we have described, most mainstream support has not been designed based on behavioural science and the prerequisite of self-efficacy. It urgently needs to be remodelled to do so.

In the economic climate we are facing, inadequate employment support from our mainstream services means that millions may be left permanently disadvantaged in the labour market. Ensuring this doesn’t happen requires a change in the way mainstream services support people: recognising the wider determinants of their employment situation, bolstering their confidence during periods of unemployment and prioritising their economic and personal outcomes over simply filling vacancies.


If you are a service designer or employment support practitioner interested in embedding Good Help, please get in touch.

Emma Kernahan and Jane Mansour