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'Welfare-to-work' and 'work-life balance' must be joined up: people with big problems need space to sort out their lives

Two of New Labour's agendas - 'welfare-to-work' and 'work-life balance' - need to be properly joined up and people with extreme problems allowed space to sort out their lives, according to new research funded by the ESRC and led by Dr Hartley Dean, Social Policy, LSE.

Studies at the Universities of Luton and Nottingham show that people with multiple difficulties need a 'life-first' approach to 'welfare-to-work', sorting out their needs in general, including their need to work.

Hartley Dean said: 'The Government's 'welfare-to-work' policies are premised on the idea that paid work is the best form of welfare, while its 'work-life balance' campaign is based on the idea that people should be better able to combine paid employment with family life. There are, however, fundamental tensions at the heart of each of these agendas.'

Researchers talked to 50 people in Luton and Sheffield who were not only unemployed but may also have experienced homelessness, long-term physical or mental health problems, substance abuse, learning difficulties, public or institutional care or custody, and violent or abusive family lives. The common thread was the complex, difficult and sometimes frightening nature of the lives they had led.

For example, three-quarters had been touched by violence at some stage. And the long-term effects on some meant they were unlikely to get regular jobs without proper support and a lot of understanding from their employers.

The researchers found that most were adopting one or a mix of two ways of coming to terms with life. One was an angry and impatient strategy, paradoxically well adapted to a work-first approach. Those concerned had 'attitude' and often avoided the official Job Centre in favour of work in the informal economy or unstable and exploitative areas served by private employment agencies. This locked them into the chronic insecurity of the low-pay, no-pay cycle.

Others went for personal development, but the pressures of their own and society's expectations left a sense of frustration or failure. Many blamed themselves for the failures of their families and school, and their inability to get a decent job.

'The concept of 'work-life balance' is not usually applied to a group such as those in our study.' said Dr Dean, 'But the depressing reality was that nobody was being allowed the space in which to 'sort their life out'.'

The report says it is not easy to identify the kinds of continuing support that would enable these people to get permanent paid jobs. Said Dr Dean: 'If we are serious about 'welfare-to-work' we need a wider concept of work-life balance and a better understanding of the allowances that must be made if those of us with problems in our lives are to work.'

The report points out that the British approach to welfare-to-work is a classic compromise. It combines the 'work-first' objectives of the US with the 'human capital' emphasis of some countries in Europe. The idea is to move welfare recipients quickly into jobs, while at the same time making rather modest attempts to enhance their potential 'employability', it says.

Britain's approach to 'work-life balance' is also a compromise. It aims to promote 'flexible' working arrangements that will benefit both employees and employers. But the kind of flexibility that workers want is not necessarily what business wants.

Dr Dean said: 'In both instances the Government is trying to do two things at once.'


For further information, contact: 

  • Dr Hartley Dean on 020 7955 6184, email h.dean@lse.ac.uk 
  • Or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119

Notes for editors:

  1. The research report A Different Deal: Welfare-to-work for people with multiple problems and needs was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr Dean, formerly Professor of Social Policy at the University of Luton, is now a lecturer in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE.

  2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is http://www.esrc.ac.uk 

  3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products.

24 January 2003