The Subjective Experience of Work-Related Precariousness: Why it Matters

Authored by Anna Kallschmidt on behalf of Dr. Christian Seubert and Dr. Lisa Hopfgartner

With the dawn of information and communication technologies (ICT) came a plethora of never-before-seen phenomena: Mobile Internet, Lyft, selfies, dating apps, and – worst of all – an unnecessary number of blogs.

ICT has also drastically changed the world of work, shifting “normal” employment to “atypical”. Standard (i.e., “normal”) employment is characterized by permanent full-time employment with secure income, full integration into social systems, identity of work and employment relationships, and employees bound by instructions. On the contrary, atypical employment exhibits flexible working hours and locations, a reduction in full-time employment, and an increase in part-time work, fixed-term work, labor leasing, and dependent self-employment.

The flexibility introduced by atypical work environments has introduced positive employment factors, including autonomy, improved well-being, and work-life balance. However, it has also brought risks. The shift from standard to atypical employment is associated with an increase in “precarious employment.” Until now, this construct had remained widely disregarded by psychological research. Nevertheless, GLOW researchers Christian Seubert, Lisa Hopfgartner and Jüuergen Glaser have ventured to develop a psychological perspective on this construct.

“An income is regarded as precarious if it does not secure one’s livelihood and falls below a culturally defined minimum” (Seubert, Hopfgartner, & Glaser, 2019, p. 35).

The research team built off of previous sociological work by Brinkmann, Doerre, Roebenack, Kraemer, and Speidels’ (2006) and Doerre’s (2005) sociological literature.

Doerre (2005, p. 252) states:

“An employment contract can be labeled precarious if employees’ levels of income, protection, and integration clearly fall below a standard defined and agreed upon by the current society. Job insecurity and wages below the subsistence level are … central indicators of precarity.”

Based on extensive interview data, Brinkmann and colleagues defined five dimensions which construct work-related precariousness:

1. Reproductive-Material
2. Social-Communicative
3. Legal-Institutional
4. Status and Recognition
5. Meaningful-Subject-Related

Interestingly, these dimensions have scientific links to both personal and work-related outcomes.

Reproductive-Material: No friends, this does not require bringing your children to work. Rather, this dimension refers to worker compensation and planning security. If workers perceive a low income and job insecurity, their unstable financial situation can impede their long-term life planning. Subjective job insecurity has been correlated with poor health and well-being and negative work-related behavior.

Social-Communicative: This dimension refers to workplace social networks and work-related communication. Research has identified social isolation as a predictor of poor health, and lack of social support as a predictor for counterproductive work behaviors. On the contrary, social inclusion is linked to personal health.

Legal-Institutional: In this dimension, Doerre discusses the legal aspects of labor and social security, such as health insurance, worker safety and opportunities for vocational development. Typically, legal protective regulations apply without restriction to standard employment but not to atypical employment. The research in this area is scarce; however, there is evidence to show that temporary employment is negatively related to health outcomes and organizational commitment, and that social security systems buffer the negative relationship between job insecurity and both job satisfaction and commitment.

Status and Recognition: The fourth dimension involves the recognition and appreciation employees receive in and from the work. Stable employment allows for the formation of social relationships, which allows access to status, recognition, and personal development. On the contrary, precarious work is perceived as undesirable, and therefore involves less recognition and appreciation by others. Equity theory suggests this could hamper productivity. According to equity theory, people evaluate their work input to the appreciation and recognition output they receive for it, and compare it to the input and output of their colleagues. If inequality is perceived, people adapt their input to restore balance. If not enough recognition is received for the work, employees will reduce their commitment to it.

Meaningful-Subject-Related: The last dimension encompasses the meaningfulness and fulfillment that an employee receives through work. Employment that has lost its meaning can contribute to perceptions of precariousness. Meaningfulness can be derived from multiple sources, which may signify purpose, comprehension, and significance for the person. One of the most important sources of meaningfulness is family and work. Additionally, meaningfulness is positively related to work engagement and well-being.

The GLOW research team performed a content analysis on these five dimensions to generate an initial questionnaire, which was validated and evolved into the subjective experiences of work-related precariousness (SEWP) measure.

“We’ve developed a measure to capture the subjective experience of work-related precariousness (SEWP) rooted in sociological research on precariousness…our first publication deals with the scale development of the German version; a scale validation paper for the German version is in the works, as is the data acquisition for scale validation of the English version.” – Dr. Christian Seubert

The validation studies confirmed a five-factor model of work precariousness. All five dimensions correlated strongly with strain perceptions. With the exception of Status and Recognition, all dimensions and their corresponding strain were associated with fewer organizational citizenship behaviors and more workplace deviance toward the organization. There were also relationships between the SEWP dimensions and subjective well-being and somatic complaints. Collectively, the SEWP scale appears to be a reliable and valid way to capture precarious employment.

“In another conceptual paper in preparation, we suggest an inversion of the five dimensions of precarious employment with living wages as a core characteristic to arrive at tangible criteria that further inform the concept of decent work in the sense of human-oriented employment and working conditions. Furthermore we predict cultural and societal differences in the salience of the five dimensions, i.e., the importance of each dimension should vary across countries, cultures, and social backgrounds…To this end, we currently cooperate with Stuart Carr (Massey University, NZ) and Ines Meyer (University of Cape Town, ZA) and we seek to build a network of collaboration partners around the globe interested in precariousness and decent work research, for example to examine the effects of different employment situations in different contexts (but not limited to that)” – Dr. Lisa Hopfgartner

“We want to encourage researchers interested in collaboration to get in touch with us! Please contact us by email: and/or Thank you, Stuart Carr and GLOW blog, for support and providing the network to reach out to like-minded researchers.” – Dr. Christian Seubert

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