The Feel-Bad Factor

They tell us the economy is recovering, so why are we still so miserabl e and so worried? Ian Parker investigates
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The Independent Online
IN A PUB off London's Oxford Street, I asked a young woman with a well-paid job what she thought would make the country feel good again, and after thinking, she said: ``A war." Christmas shoppers drank halves; a fruit machine played the theme from EastEnders; the feel-good factor seemed far away. A man at the next table, also in work, said that, to be honest, he felt "like fucking crap". He said that he had never had time for Mrs Thatcher, but at least then, in the late Eighties, you could feel s omething: "There was a boom, a boomy thing there."

Another feel-bad week in a feel-bad year: no boomy thing at all. Many of us sent a pound to a factory worker in Blackburn, but we did not make him feel good. Shoppers and shopkeepers did not feel good: retail sales were disappointing - shoppers trudged home with the smallest imaginable Christmas tree.

British Gas employees (asked to take pay cuts on £13,000 salaries), and Southern Electric employees (1,100 of whom, over the next five years, will be made redundant) did not feel good. Nor did the voters of Dudley West: they could not find it in their hearts to reward the Government for - these words may sound familiar - high export-led growth, low inflation, falling unemployment.

Meanwhile, a report from the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys found that one in seven British adults is suffering from anxiety and depression; and Lord Rees-Mogg, writing in the Times, noted a "spreading fashion" for bottle-green corduroy trousers. A nation at ease with itself, he argued, would have chosen a different colour.

In the pub off Oxford Street last week, I asked a young couple about the feel-good factor. The man appeared to be wearing corduroy trousers, but they were a kind of deep red, and not disheartening. He said (big smile): "She is my feel-good factor." She said (no smile, not feeling good): "Oh, shut up."

FOR people conducting opinion polls, the feel-good factor means something quite specific: it is calculated after asking people the question: "How do you think the financial situation of your household will change over the next 12 months?" In a Gallup survey 10 days ago, 16.4 per cent of respondents thought things would get a lot or a bit better, but 37.4 per cent thought things would get worse - that's a feel-good factor of minus 21, against minus 16.5 the month before, or plus 12 at the time of the last election.

The bottle-green shoots of recovery seem to have shot, but we are not cheered; and the Government finds itself assuming the role of an embarrassing adult at an adolescent party, urging the "young people" to "groove" and so on. We will not groove.

Why not? What has happened to our sense of financial well-being, our gratitude, our trousers? The feel-bad factor is not explained, primarily, by fears about pay, or about sneaky, stealthy, indirect taxation, or parliamentary sleaze and hopelessness - although these things play their part. The answer, it seems, lies at work.

Work is making us nervous. We don't recognise the place. In Britain in 1994, people who do not have a job feel very bad, but people who do have a job - and this is really spoiling the party - feel almost equally bad. British workers, it is suggested by experts and by anecdote, are intimidated by recent, fairly sudden (and probably irreversible) changes in the labour market and in employment conditions: contract working, part-time working, de-unionisation, streamlining, new shift patterns, "hot deski ng"(nowhere to sit), "downsizing" (sacking of friends).

The same employment "flexibility" for which Conservative policy can take some credit, has resulted in scepticism about an economic recovery for which Conservative policy might also wish to take the credit. And the national disease is no longer absenteeism but - to borrow, with regret, a recently coined phrase - "presenteeism". We are a nation as ill-at-ease with our offices as we are with our slacks.

IN THE pub off Oxford Street, a 46-year-old engineer in a construction company - neat beard, suit, pint of lager - said: "There is no feel-good factor here. Job insecurity - that's the thing. That's the worst thing. It's what it's all about. Because eventhose who are left don't know where they are; and we're all monitoring each other." A severe case of presenteeism. "There's no training. I have to rob budgets to get professional training for my staff, for them not to fall behind. And there's people watching, and they're going to come in one day and sweep us away."

Another, younger, man works in a large insurance company. There have been redundancies, he says, and new temporary contracts, and moves towards setting up a 24-hour telephone line with customers. "The culture of work is changing, and we can see the way it's going, but some people can't change. First thing you notice, there're having an outburst in the office. Just shouting. Everything begins to fall apart."

JOHN Curtice, senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University, was puzzled by the failure of the feel-good factor to appear in the wake of low inflation rates and lowish mortgage costs and has researched this area. He began by ruling some things out: "There is no link," he says, "between taxation and the feel-good factor, although there is between taxation and the popularity of the Government. And a rising housing market is a consequence, not a cause of the feel-good factor. And it's not about payrises . . . What we come down to is: it's to do with job insecurity."

Curtice's moment of insight was to realise that people's security about employment is linked not to national unemployment figures - now falling - but to overtime hours worked. A job insecurity curve, derived from figures in the annual survey British Social Trends, and now indicating the most insecurity for a decade, exactly fits ("like a glove", says Curtice) the curve for actual hours worked in manufacturing industry. When a worker is asked to work overtime, he or she, traditionally, feels secure in his or her work; what kind of company would sack someone for whom there is too much work?

But today, under new flexible working conditions, there is markedly less call for overtime, even in a company where jobs are reasonably secure. There's the problem. Either your contract will already specify long, flexible hours, or any gaps that appear will be filled by part-time, short-term workers, or both. Against tradition, overtime is falling as unemployment falls. Deprived of overtime, the full-time worker is deprived of his sense of security - the feel-good factor does not come.

Curtice says that to restore a feel-good factor, to remove fear from the workplace, would require the kind of tightening of the labour market that the Conservative right wing would find it hard to stomach. (Opt into the Social Chapter? Abandon privatisation plans? Encourage trade unions? Please.) Seen from a distance, the party's quandary is rather gratifying.

CARY Cooper is professor of organisational and occupational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. He is an expert at job insecurity. He speaks as if he had none, with great American gusto: "The feel-good factor?"

he booms. "We were just looking for it!" He agrees that "any economic indicator you want to choose . . . Britain's got one of the fastest growing economies, low levels of inflation, reasonably low levels of interest rates . . . And yet we don't think we 're in good shape."

Professor Cooper must take responsibility for the coining of the word "presenteeism". "So many organisations have down-sized," he says, "or have right-sized, as Americans now like to call it. The people dumped have got problems we all know about. The remaining people are not doing too badly economically, but they're suffering from presenteeism - people who remain after a redundancy, who an organisation feels should be really jolly that they've retained their job, but who, first, are overworked, becausethere are fewer people, and second, are job-insecure. Those things combine to make them work longer hours. They work longer hours because there's more to do, but they want to show the organisation that they're really committed, in case there's a second l ot of redundancies, which there will be. How can there be a feel-good factor if you're working all night? You're earning, but you have no private life. How do you enjoy it?"

In such a life, there is no "quality time" for family, for outside activities, and there is no time to spend your disposable income. The bottle-green cords loom.

But besides overwork and any fears of future redundancy, the new nature of work itself is making workers feel bad: "The direction public and private sectors are actually going is to what the Americans are calling the contingent worker, or contract worker. People can see they will no longer be employed by a large employer who will give them a sense of security. The future is contract working and that scares a lot of people."

People who for 15 years have talked of self-reliance in the public bar, who have voted for a party of self-reliance, are learning what it means.

At conferences on such subjects, people are giving papers on "de-layering" and "the flat organisation". A recent Mori poll carried out for the Institute of Personnel and Development shows that 94 per cent of organisations employed part-time staff, and 76per cent use fixed-term contracts for individuals. And while only 10 per cent of companies expected to take on full-time employees in the next 12 months, more than twice as many were planning to employ workers on personal contracts.

Dianah Worman, a policy adviser for the IPD, is very familiar with the conditions that Prof Cooper's research describes: "Companies are changing their employment profile, their working practices. They have to be more able to respond to changing demands. And of course this puts a lot of pressure on the people working in the organisation; not only are they unsure whether they might be the next in line, the next to go if there is a shrinkage, but as the organisation reshapes, refocuses - longer opening hours, for example - the work might change, you might not be sure what you've got to do."

In the end, what seems strange to us will become familiar: dustmen do not forever object to the smell; drug dealers do not expect pension plans. The insecurity of our new ways of working - now and then, at night, on the phone, in scratchy uniforms, at short notice, without training, without overtime - will begin to feel something like security. We may enjoy the freedom: the feel-good factor may return.

It is important to note, however, that a feel-good population is not the same as a government-friendly electorate. Back in the pub off Oxford Street, a 26-year-old man explained how he became accustomed to temporary work after being made redundant duringthe summer. (He used to demonstrate Parker pens in department stores.) He now has a Christmas job at John Lewis, and in the New Year there will be something more solid with Golden Wonder crisps.

He is confident about the future, he is "good enough to get any work". Does he have a high feel-good factor? "Yes," he says. How will he vote? "Labour," he says, affronted, folding up his newspaper.