Institute scientists define and track precarious employment in Canada

Dr. Emile Tompa talks about how precarious employment can affect workers' health and well-being

Published: February 10, 2006

More and more Canadians are facing a new reality: There is no such thing anymore as a steady job. Contract, temporary and part-time work, as well as self-employment, are replacing stable jobs that once were the rule. Nearly 40 per cent of workers do not hold permanent, full-time jobs. As globalization, outsourcing and technology change the way we work, Ottawa and provincial governments must ensure labour policies cover new employment relationships so fewer workers fall through the cracks.
– from an editorial in the Toronto Star, August 3, 2004

What do these three very different workers have in common?

  • a data-entry clerk brought in on an ad hoc basis to supply extra services during a merger between two large insurance companies
  • an executive assistant hired on a temporary contract by a local community college to work for its Acting Dean of Student Affairs
  • an independent dry-waller helping to complete a new condominium project already delayed due to a long construction workers’ strike

They are all examples of “non-standard” employment – that is, none of these workers is a typical, full-time employee who enjoys a certain degree of job security. In each case, the person has been hired on a temporary basis and could be negatively affected by related factors beyond his or her control.

Dr. Emile Tompa uses the term “precarious” to describe these types of employment experiences and says more and more workers – here in Canada, and around the world – are finding themselves in this situation. The term ‘precarious’ reflects the fact that such work arrangements can create insecurity and stress, says Tompa, a labour and health economist and Scientist at the Institute for Work & Health. This has the potential to negatively affect workers’ health and well-being.

Changes in global economy affecting work arrangements

For many years, full-time permanent employment was the norm in Canada. In exchange for their time and skills, many workers could expect a regular pay-cheque, regular hours, health, dental and retirement benefits, and training and advancement opportunities. This remained the “gold standard” until productivity slowed in the 1970s, says Tompa. Today, many organizations see full-time employment as expensive and restricting. Many are reluctant to assume the cost and commitment of entitlements such as extended health-care insurance, dental insurance and pension benefits.

With globalization, the expansion of market boundaries has pressured companies to compete internationally and to respond quickly to market changes. Those with “flexible staffing” have greater freedom to add or remove people as needed in line with market changes, he adds.

While precarious employment – associated with characteristics such as non-permanent contract, few benefits, an ever-present chance of being dismissed – has been a fact of life in many service-oriented sectors, even well-paid, highly skilled workers are feeling the pressure. Dr. Ellen MacEachen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute, is leading a federally-funded study exploring health and safety in “high-tech” computer software sales and services workplaces (see Precarious employment in the high-tech sector).

Some current Canadian trends in non-standard work

With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Tompa and his colleagues have completed several studies in the area of non-standard work and precarious employment. Their research builds on work undertaken by the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) on Contingent Work. The CURA group is based at York University in Toronto and led by IWH Adjunct Scientist Dr. Leah Vosko.

To track recent Canadian trends in non-standard work, Tompa and his colleagues Heather Scott-Marshall, Roman Dolinschi, Scott Trevithick and Sudipa Bhattacharyya analyzed data from two sources – the Canadian Labour Force Survey (LFS)* and the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID)**.

Although their findings have not yet been published, here’s what these Institute researchers have learned so far:

  • Non-standard work arrangements are more common for men and women of all ages than they were 25 years ago. In general, younger workers (aged 17 to 24), older workers (aged 55-64) and female workers have the greatest exposure to precarious employment.
  • In 2002, 56 per cent of women aged 17 to 24 and 42 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 were employed in non-standard jobs.
  • More than one-third of women experienced at least 12 months of part-time employment in one six-year period, regardless of age, and about half of those working part-time were involuntary part-time workers (see The dimensions of precarious employment).
  • As for men, in 2002, 48 per cent of those aged 17 to 24 and 31 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 were employed in non-standard jobs. That reflects an increase of 10 per cent over a 26-year period.

Tompa says these increases have been driven primarily by growth in part-time employment, including both voluntary and involuntary (involuntary part-timers would prefer a full-time job but can’t find one). The frequency of “solo self-employment” (people working for themselves with no employees) and multiple job holding (individuals holding down two or even three jobs at once) has also increased.

Seeking links between precarious work and health

So what are the health implications – if any – of precarious employment? Previous studies have found some clear links. In their systematic review of the evidence published in 2001, Australian researchers led by Dr. Michael Quinlan looked at nearly 100 studies published to date on the health and safety effects of precarious employment in industrialized societies. They found that the evidence suggested precarious employment is associated with “a deterioration in occupational health and safety in terms of injury rates, disease risk (and) hazard exposures.” Research that looked specifically at outsourcing (contracting out) and organizational restructuring and downsizing found negative effects on occupational health and safety. The findings on outsourcing were “virtually unanimously negative,” according to Quinlan.

But how might precariousness lead to poorer health? Researchers have suggested several “pathways” which could link chronic stress caused by work insecurity to poor health, says Tompa. One aspect of precarious employment is fear of job loss or “job insecurity” which has been linked to heightened stress. Stress causes our bodies to produce extra hormones and to suspend certain activities like digestion, immune function and tissue repair until the stress-causing event has passed. Long-term stress may also have direct effects on psychological health and well-being and may also encourage unhealthy coping behaviours such as smoking, overeating and substance abuse.

Beyond the potential negative health effects of job insecurity and stress, many workers in precarious job situations simply don’t earn enough income, Tompa says. This can contribute to poor living conditions, substandard nutrition and inadequate access to health-care resources. These workers may also be exposed to physical hazards on the job, which can further jeopardize their health.

More findings may emerge after longer follow-up

Yet when Tompa and his colleagues analyzed their own data from a national survey, they found “a general pattern of no relationship between poor self-reported health or declines in self-rated health and exposure to non-standard work forms and arrangements.” However, we did find some interesting trends, he says. For example, workers who reported substantial unpaid overtime were at greater risk of lower self-rated health.

There could be several reasons why IWH researchers didn’t find the same associations between non-standard work and declines in health which have been noted in other studies, says Dr. Cameron Mustard, a population health scientist at the University of Toronto and IWH President. For example, they only looked at one-year exposures. We may need to track chronic, long-term exposures before stress manifests itself as physical illness, he says. Also, our scientists analyzed data on general physical health and didn’t look specifically at workers’ mental health, which may be affected earlier than their physical well-being.

Tompa is continuing to analyze information from the two national health surveys to see if new findings on health emerge after a longer follow-up period. Dr. Heather Scott-Marshall will be working to develop a better understanding of precariousness from the workers’ point of view. Our studies represent a first step in applying a conceptual framework for precarious employment to actual work experiences, Mustard says. We want to foster discussion about the consequences of labour-market change, and to encourage more research in this area. Only then will regulatory bodies have the information necessary to respond to health risks associated with a greater variety of work relationships.

* The LFS, which began collecting data 30 years ago, asks a representative sample of Canadian workers about the nature of their work experiences.
** The SLID is a national labour-market survey administered by Statistics Canada; it looks at the work experiences of approximately 15,000 Canadians aged 16 and over for a six-year period.