Occupational Services to Industry

Improving Performance

The Psychology Of Zero Hour Contracts – Flexibility For The New Millennium Or Towards a Victorian Era

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The Psychology Of Zero Hour Contracts – Flexibility For The New Millennium Or Towards a Victorian Era

Zero Hour Contracts, lets examine the facts. Various sources estimate that approximately 250,000 UK workers are on Zero Hour Contracts, and there is growing evidence that this figure could be far higher. As a result of the present climate they are arguably moving away from niche towards a mainstream contractual arrangement in certain sectors, and it could be further argued that sectors that are turning to this type of ‘non-employment’ is also growing.

Despite the arguments of flexibility, from a psychological perspective these contracts engender uncertainty and lack of control, both of which are recognised causes of stress at work that can damage employee wellbeing and consequent performance. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest long term stress can eventually lead into depression.

In the present climate a regular income that reflects the current cost of living has never been more important to employees. However, unpredictable hours based on inconsistent commercial demands are driven by wider contextual variables  – i.e. packaged selections of fresh produce, where retailers may look at the weather forecast, anticipate demand and place their orders accordingly, often with a lead in time of less than 24 hours.  As a result, employees will be suffering simply because they have no guarantee of how much money they will be taking home each week. If you get no work for a week or two, paying rent, or arranging childcare can be problematic. Planning ahead becomes difficult.
 The disruption to family life as a result of frequent short-notice requirements to work make so many things nearly impossible to plan.

The possible financial struggles and the fear that many feel living in this situation can lead to work related stress. It can be difficult to maintain good work morale when the job you’re doing isn’t financially supporting you, and the uncertainty of a Zero Hour Contract means that many won’t ask for their situations to be improved because of the fear they’ll lose their jobs, or employers will further reduce hours. Workers may even feel worse if they work with full-time members of staff who don’t experience these problems, especially if they do the same work.

In addition, it has also been argued that a differentiated and unbalanced working arrangement creates resentment and envy, which in turn is highly likely to damage how teams function and work together.

Profiling individuals may be the key to understanding the right person fit to a Zero Hour Contract. A formal and full time contractual arrangement, psychologically creates a sense of value and sense of worth, it creates security and requires long term commitment. However, flexibility, short termism and lack of commitment to any one organisation, coupled with a need to do other things i.e. study, may be the key that fits a Zero Hours context. Personality characteristics that drive this motivational differential can be measured. Level of confidence, need for control, level of commitment, team orientation, need for security and regularity, need for autonomy, attitude to change and managing uncertainty/unpredictability, will all factor in the impact of a Zero Hour Contract on employee health and wellbeing.

Another factor to consider is better analytics, a current growth area in HR generally. Technology can be utilised to better predict working patterns, which can lesson the negative impact of Zero Hour Contracts.

Employers need to understand that psychologically, these contracts have the potential to engender poor performance. Feeling undervalued has a long-term, repeated, continual effect on tasks and attitudes towards them. Furthermore, the unconscious message that underpins the nature of these contracts is inherently negative. The potential reciprocation is anger and resentment, hardly a driver of quality work.

Too many people are currently living a life on call.

Consider the following summary from Professor Roger Seifert – University of Wolverhampton Business School:

“In the Victorian era there were sweatshops, child labour, few worker rights, and casual employment with no guaranteed income. We view this with horror as a sign of gross inequality, ruthless exploitation, and as bad times in which the rich and powerful were able to maintain their idle privilege through laws, customs, and a deeply religious conservatism where everyone was born into and knew their place.

Scratch the surface of our modern world and we can find signs that progress has not been as spectacular as we like to believe.”



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