Abstract important aspect of workplace wellbeing (Pedersen and

Abstract

The present study explored in depth interview responses of
employees on zero-hour contracts. Semi-structured interviews were used, set to
explore aspects of zero-hour contracts, such as their flexibility or job
security. Thematic analysis was conducted to answer questions regarding
benefits of flexible working and the effects of zero-hour contracts on employee
wellbeing. Several themes were identified, each offering a detailed account as
to how flexible work impacts employees and their professional relations. The
report explores the themes of the appeal of flexibility in zero-hour contracts,
the lack of job security that comes with it, and workforce integration and team
dynamics. The study has implications for promoting employee wellbeing and good
professional practice in equality in the flexibility offered by zero-hour
contracts for both parties, the employee and the employer.

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Introduction

Contemporary research indicates that zero-hour contracts
and temporary working has adverse effects on mental health and wellbeing (Buchler,
Haynes and Baxter 2015). This is plausible with how such contracts are
portrayed in the media because of its associated lack of job security, which is
an important aspect of workplace wellbeing (Pedersen and Lewis 2012). There has
been an increase in media coverage of such work, as well as ongoing debate and
criticism of those offering such short-term employment. The present study
therefore aims to explore individuals’ experiences of working on zero-hour
contracts and their attitudes towards policies on these types of contracts. In
2014 alone, 2.3 per cent of the British workforce was employed on a zero-hour
contract, an increase from 1.9 per cent in 2013 (Roberts, 2015). Contemporary
research focuses on flexible working and work-life balance (Prowse and Prowse
2015), which suggests that flexible work is more suited to those without caring
commitments or greater responsibility, while those on existing zero-hour
contracts are increasingly expected to take on extra workload (Prowse and Prowse
2015). The present study recruited participants with a range of outside-work
commitments to obtain in-depth data and a greater picture of their experiences
and how these might differ across participants. Many argue that such flexible
working marginalises employees’ work-life balance, resulting in divisions
between full and part time staff (Ferrie et al. 2013), as well as permanent and
temporary employees (Allen, Johnson and Shockley 2013). Furthermore, some
researchers go beyond this, suggesting that such neglect of employee wellbeing
reinforces flexibility stigma (Whitehead and Phippen 2015). It is therefore
important to explore the experiences of employees on zero-hour contracts and the
effects of such employment on their wellbeing. The present study aims to
explore this, in particular to expand on the existing body of research on
flexible working and employee burnout as with modern technology and work
availability on the go, it is becoming increasingly important that employers
recognise the importance of employee wellbeing and help promote a healthy
work-life balance.

 

 

Method

Participants

Participants were fifteen individuals employed under a zero-hour
contract, recruited through an opportunity sampling method from the contacts of
the researchers. Participants were all under the age of twenty-five. 

Procedure

A semi-structured approach was adopted where participants
were asked to discuss their work, the positives and negatives of working under
the contract, and to respond to common media claims. Interviews were conducted,
recorded and transcribed by research assistants, who conducted the interviews
in a mutually-agreed public area. For interview question schedule please see
appendix 1. 

Reflexivity

It is important to note the potential influence of the
researcher’s own employment history with zero-hour contracts on the
interpretation of participants’ experiences. Therefore, to limit researcher
subjectivity or bias, the initial decision to conduct Interpretative
Phenomenological Analysis was overturned. This was to ensure that participants’
true and intended meaning was explored in depth in the report. Furthermore, the
researcher’s lack of parental responsibility might have limited the extent to
which participants with children and their accounts of balancing parental
responsibilities with zero hours employment were understood. Participant pseudonyms
were excluded from the final report to ensure they remain known to the lead
researcher only.

Analysis

Participants’ responses to interview questions were coded
in terms of categories of emerging themes to identify trends of experiences and
attitudes consistent across participants. This was to ensure substantial data
for conducting thematic analysis, which revealed several themes related to the
research aims:

1.    The
appeal of work flexibility in zero-hour contracts

2.    Lack
of job security

3.    Workforce
integration and team dynamics

Theme 1: The Appeal of Work Flexibility in
Zero-hour Contracts

One recurrent theme consistent across interviews was the
motivating factor for choosing to work zero-hour contracts. This seemed to be
the flexibility such contracts offer and applied to both, the flexibility of being
able to organise work around other commitments, as well as the employer’s
flexibility in offering work where demand for business is present with no
additional obligation.:

Transcript
Lines 30-31: ‘ I didn’t want a part-time or full-time job at the time…  And it also worked around my college
schedule, and it was just like, quick easy money’

This therefore conveys the idea that the appeal of zero-hour
contracts is their flexibility around participants’ studies and outside
commitments, as well as offering an alternative to full and part time work. However,
the flexibility of zero-hour contracts was not perceived favourably across all
participants:

Transcript
Lines 51-52: ‘well sometimes, they like to give you a last-minute notice and
tell you ‘Oh you need to be in at this hour and this hour’ and sometimes I have
lessons so I can’t attend because I am now based in Coventry, and both
companies operate in London. Sometimes it does affect my University attendance’ 

This reveals the inconvenience associated with their zero-hour
contract and the flexibility it entails in terms of last minute shift offers
and a fully flexible and unpredictable working schedule. This seems to
interfere with participants’ social life when it comes to making plans. The
flexibility of zero-hour contracts can therefore be appealing to some and
inconvenient to others. Individual differences in participant’s experiences of
zero-hour contracts seem to depend on their circumstances and levels of
responsibility; analysis revealed a contrast in participants’ perceptions about
the appeal of zero-hour contracts to various groups and the benefits of their
flexibility.

Transcript
Lines 304-307: ‘…on paper it sounds good like – it sounds like something
students should get into or single mothers or mothers with young children,
because the contract can be based on their life, not the other way around
INT: yep but it doesn’t work out as such. Like in reality it doesn’t work out
as good as it looks on paper. They pay minimum – and that’s kind of a con with
the whole minimum wage…’

This response recognises the appeal to those with parental
responsibility because of the potential for various working patterns which can
be adjusted according to parents’ child care responsibilities. However, a
participant with parental responsibilities in real life responded in contrast
to these perceptions, suggesting that such flexibility only exists in theory
and not practice. They reported experiencing equal inconvenience in balancing
their work pattern and outside commitments:

Transcript
Lines 381-383: ‘If I didn’t have children… I still don’t think I could work
in a 0-hour contract because with my personality I need to know what I am doing,
where I am and where I am supposed to be’

This suggests an alternative reality to perceived flexibility,
whereby participants experienced uncertainty in their work, and preference for
stability as demonstrated in their existing permanent role: 

Transcript
Lines 385-386: ‘I need that kind of stability in my life… Hence the reason why
I went straight for a permanent job and permanent jobs… I feel more secure.’

Transcript
Lines 57-58: ‘I mean yeah, because… because if I did have a normal contract,
you know… there would be a set amount of time I’d work and I would know the
days I would have to work so it would be easier’

Participants therefore placed more value on permanent job
roles, whether full or part time, because of the certainty over associated
responsibilities and working pattern this offers. Furthermore, participants’
responses also conveyed a sense of anxiety associated with the unpredictability
of zero-hour contract working patterns, as well as job security if such
patterns are refused (something that zero-hour contracts allow for both
parties):

Transcript
Lines 68-70 ‘:..I am not forced to go, but it’s just that if I turn around to
them and tell them ‘Oh I can’t work at this event because I am at university’
then they’d probably see me as unreliable then won’t ask me to work on a job
again’

Transcript
Lines 76-77: ‘the fact that you’re called in like, anytime they please. You’re
not given any like… advanced Warning and you have to drop everything you’re
doing or else you will be fired, or given notice to leave’

Transcript
Lines 85-86: ‘sometimes all I want to do is go on them quick getaway trips at
like a Moment’s notice and do anything other teenager girls want to do. But I
can’t because If I am in Blackpool for example and my boss calls or emails me
to do a job INT: Right I’d have to leave Blackpool or basically get fired’

This response identifies
participants’ frustration with existing double standards where zero-hour
contracts are concerned. Contractually, the employer is not obliged to offer
any shifts and the employee is not obliged to accept these. However, this
response reveals the double standard in that further shifts may not be offered
if these are refused by the employee in the first place. Participants therefore
experience limited job security and intrinsic value to the employer, implying
little meaning in their work. Their professional relationship with their
employer therefore consists of employees’ obligation to take on flexible and
unpredictable shifts to minimise risk of not being offered work in the future.  

Theme 2: Lack of Job Security

Another emerging theme in the analysis was the lack of job
security experiences by participants in their zero-hour job roles. This seemed
particularly relevant in contrast to permanent roles, whereby a participant
identified more security in a permanent role in that they would not be risking
terminating employment should they be unable to meet their shift commitment

Transcript
Lines 842- 845: ‘you’ve got more security in a permanent job so it gives you
the best of both worlds. Yes you’re committed to your work and where you’ve
gotta be and what you’ve gotta do but you can also be ‘welp I have a permanent
job I don’t have to go in today’ in certain things INT: yeah doesn’t mean you
should take things to full advantage – also implies a level of flexibility in
permanent role in contrast, i.e. the security to be able to not work a shift
and still remain employed’

This therefore also implies that job security can impact
behaviour and motivation in the workplace, and permanent employment seems to
have influenced the participant’s attitude towards their work and commitment to
coming in. Furthermore, participants demonstrated preference for more secure
roles as these offer more stability and financial security, although one
participant identified the potential appeal of zero-hour contracts to students:

Transcript
Lines 817-820: because I would want security where I work, so I know I’ve got a
set amount of money coming this week or this month as opposed to ’em, when will
I be working now?’ cuz obviously if you don’t study, I;ve got no other
prospects, then you’ve gotta have security, that’s the main thing, so I would
only.. I would change it if I wasn’t a student but as I’m a student, I’m happy
to keep it going 

Further lack of job security was revealed when participants
were asked about employer’s flexibility with their employees’ commitments
outside of work:

Transcript
Lines: 68-70 no but I am not forced to go, but it’s just that if I turn around
to them and tell them ‘Oh I can’t work at this event because I am at
university’ then they’d probably see me as unreliable then won’t ask me to work
on a job again   — fear of not given
further shifts, unstable work patterns and lack of job security

Participants were therefore offered limited employment opportunities.
Their zero-hour contract offered unstable working patterns and lack of job
security. The above response also links to the previous theme of flexibility in
this type of work, as the participant revealed that full flexibility was
expected of them as an employee on a zero-hour contract, however turning down
of shifts lead to fear of not given further work, thus in this case flexibility
was only expected of them and therefore not the employer. It is important to
note that such contracts do not discriminate between individuals who have not
committed to previous shifts, therefore employers’ attitude towards zero-hour
employees might differ to those of permanent staff. Furthermore, job security
was also highlighted with regards to participants’ parental commitments and
uncertainty over employment and a sense of being easily replaced should they
not commit to the work they were given:

Transcript
Lines 865-866: ‘0-hour member of staff it’s like an attitude of ‘I have this
work for you to do. If you’re capable of doing it, do it, if not I can get
someone else to replace you’. If I didn’t have children… I still don’t think
I could work in a 0-hour contract because with my personality. I need to no job
security, as well as certainty over what will be involved know what I am doing,
where I am and where I am supposed to be’

Moreover, as one participant pointed out, the perceived job
and associated financial security are not always realistic when it comes to
zero-hour contracts:

Transcript
Lines 1116-1117: it’s basically the opposite. So sometimes when you need money
they may not have anything available’

This ties in with the lack of financial security due to the
lack of work, as well as no guarantee of any hours at all, meaning that an employee
on a zero-hour contract might be at the employer’s ‘beck and call’ as and when
needed.

Theme 3: Workforce Integration and Team
Dynamics

Another theme identified from data analysis was that of
workforce integration and team dynamics. In particular, a common element
identified across interviews was that of differences between groups of
permanent and zero-hour staff within the same workplace:

Transcript
Lines: 120-124: ‘the people who have been there for a long time – they’re very
integrated as one. Like you can tell they know each other and that INT: yeah
and with us they’re very nonchalant. They don’t know our name, they don’t know
anything really so…’

When this was explored further, the participant described
varying treatment between permanent and zero-hour teams in the workplace:

Transcript
Line 124: ‘yeah kinda like an outsider. We are very segregated’ 

This was evident across
interviews, highlighting how zero-hour contracts can impact perceptions and
attitudes towards the workforce, as well as the work that employees complete:

Transcript
Lines: 870-877: i’m not saying that the staff were horrible, erm but there was
no time to integrate because on 0-hour contracts you get as much work pushed on
you as they possibly can for the money that they are giving you. Whereas with a
permanent member of staff, they’ve got an annual income, so there work is
spaced out. A 0-hour contract is more like the temp that comes in, fills the
gaps and they push the work on you for –for – basically what you can do. So there
will be no time to sit at the computer, sitting on Google and just flicking
INT: yeah Whereas you’d find that the permanent members of staff will be
doing that, and nobody will be batting an eyelid’

Zero-hour contracts can therefore limit
workforce integration by associated perceptions of employees on such contracts
as ‘other’ or external to the permanent work team:

Transcript
Lines: 1509-1513 : .’cuz my contract type at that time it was like.. I wouldn’t
really know my managers, we had a different manager with each occasion,
wouldn’t really know anybody personally, so it was like, it wasn’t really like
integrated workforce, really.. it was just like, on a certain day, you just
work with a certain person, and then, that’s really it.. it wasn’t very
interactive with the managers that much.. at all..’

This response identifies high staff turnover and subsequent
limited rapport building, interaction and team integration.

Discussion

Thematic analysis revealed
three main themes, which were consistent across multiple participants.
Participants demonstrated flexibility to be the appealing factor of zero-hour
contracts, both for the employee being able to fit their work around their
outside commitments and the employer offering work where there is demand.
However, interviews revealed that this flexibility has negative implications in
that some participants experienced fear of not being offered work as a result of
turning down some shifts. It is therefore important to highlight that the
purpose of zero-hour contracts is to offer both parties full flexibility of
being in control of how much they work (Roberts 2015), thus such practice should
be avoided in order to promote better and healthier employer-employee
relations. This has been shown to increase job satisfaction and workplace
wellbeing in permanent employment (Whitehead and Phippen 2015, McNamara Bohle
and Quinlan 2011), and can therefore be beneficial for those employing
temporary staff. This links to another theme identified during coding, which
also offers implications for employee retention, training and development. Job
security was identified to be a theme which, in the present sample, seemed to
cause anxiety in participants, especially in relation to some of their existing
permanent roles. Participants’ experiences of zero-hour contracts offered a
sense of lack of job security in terms of retention and further employment
opportunities, as well as financial security and work stability. Participants
therefore demonstrated preference for permanent roles, whether full or part
time, which seemed more beneficial due to the certainty in work hours, working
pattern and pay. It would therefore provide more rich information to compare
and contrast data from participants on permanent and temporary contracts to see
whether there are substantial differences in employee wellbeing and job
satisfaction. Psychometric measures would be extremely useful in determining the
extent to which these are determined by contract type. This would provide more
detailed accounts of the sources of participants’ perceptions, motivation and
feelings about their workplace, especially as the present study only does so from
a subjective perspective. It is also important to note that certain
participants reported their experiences retrospectively, as having worked on a
zero-hour contract in the past, which might have affected their account of such
experiences and how they perceived it to have affected their workplace
motivation and attitude. There were minor differences in participants’ attitudes
in each of the reported themes, however the report focuses on data indicative
of majority consistency across participants. It would therefore be more beneficial
to employ stringent participant recruitment methods to ensure
representativeness (such as stratified sampling). However, this does reveal that
the present study does not explore the variety in how zero-hour contracts might
be perceived by employees. It would therefore be more beneficial to recruit a bigger
sample as the present one portrays a negative attitude towards zero-hour
contracts. This would help psychologists obtain a fuller and richer idea of how
individuals perceive temporary contracts and how these affect their motivation in
the workplace.

Finally, the last theme
referred to workforce integration and team dynamics. Analysis revealed
perceived differences in the treatment of permanent and temporary staff in the
workplace, as well as their integration into existing teams. This underlines
the importance of introducing regulation that prevents potential discrimination
between staff based on their contract type, as well as to ensure that workload
is distributed evenly and fairly. This is because some participants reported
greater workloads due to the limited timeframe for their duties compared to
permanent staff. Perhaps deadline distribution for tasks could be a useful
factor to consider when exploring solutions to this. Although implications for
future research and potential psychological intervention have been identified,
the present study is largely limited in offering conclusive data for
intervention in promoting workplace wellbeing, satisfaction or motivation. It
should be used as a point of reference for relevant research and literature to
consider the factors affecting employees in temporary work and the motivation
behind taking on a zero-hour contract in the first place.