Zero-hours contracts and mental health

For many of us, work is where we spend much of our time. It is essential that our workplaces and our working conditions support us to have good mental health.

One type of employment contract on the rise is the ‘Zero-Hours Contract’, with around 3% of the working population – or one million people - in the UK employed in this way.

What is a zero-hours contract?

This type of contract may also be known as a casual contract. They do not guarantee any hours of work, and workers are only paid for work carried out, although the good practice is for employers to provide the employee with a contract setting out exactly how the contract will work. People working under these contracts are entitled to the national minimum wage and statutory annual leave (pay for annual leave is calculated based on the number of hours worked).

Supporters of zero-hours contracts say that the flexibility offered is attractive to some workers, for example, students who want to work part-time. However, only a small number of people working under zero-hours contracts are students. More often, they are held by women, people with disabilities, people from minority ethnic groups, or people who are poorer – all are groups known to be already disadvantaged in the labour market.

Most zero-hours contracts are linked to low pay, limited hours and under-employment. Research has found that people on zero-hours contracts earn 7% less in a year than those working similar jobs with regular contracted hours1. Workers on zero-hours contracts also work on average 10 hours less per week2.

zero hours contracts report cover

How do zero-hours contracts affect mental health? 

We know that poorly paid and insecure work is linked to poor mental well-being, but there is limited research on the specific mental health effects of a zero-hours contract. We have explored the existing research and found that among 17 relevant studies, eight found a significant link between zero-hours contracts and reporting a mental health difficulty or low well-being. Only two studies could not find any association between being on a zero-hours contract and reporting poorer mental health.

Both of these studies were carried out in Australia, where zero-hours contract workers are given greater protection and a higher hourly wage (25% higher than the national minimum wage).

Evidence suggests that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty about working hours contribute to poor mental health and well-being among people on zero-hours contracts.

Our recommendations

Job security and ensuring we have enough money to feed our families, pay our rent/mortgage and energy bills, and maintain a good standard of living are essential for good mental health. Zero-hours contracts can make these things more difficult.

We recommend the following actions:

  • Further research into the link between precarious work, particularly zero-hours contracts, and mental health is needed
  • The UK Government should introduce legislation to reduce job insecurity and in-work poverty for all workers. This should include new rights to more secure work for everyone in employment
  • The Real Living Wage should be the normal minimum wage paid to employees

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