Care home staff working on zero-hours contracts are more likely to have worse mental health levels than other staff in the health and social care sector, according to UK researchers.
The association was a “particularly interesting” finding, said the study authors from Bath Spa University, who noted that the majority of UK care workers are employed on zero-hours contracts.
“Those on zero-hours contracts were more likely to have worsened mental health”
They said it highlighted the need for more research on the influence of zero-hours contracts on wellbeing, particularly in groups with increased likelihood of developing mental health disorders.
In their paper, they noted a recent increase in media and political interest in the use of such contracts, which have been described by some as exploitative and were recently banned in New Zealand.
Despite the interest, however, the study authors claimed there had previously been a lack of research into the impact on physical and psychological health of zero-hours contracts.
In their study, the researchers investigated the working conditions, general mental health and levels of engagement among a sample of around 200 UK care workers in London and the West Midlands.
Specifically, they looked into differences between care workers who had zero-hours contracts and those with standard fixed-hours contracts.
“Care workers do an incredibly important job and yet so many of them are on zero-hours contracts”
To collect information, the researchers used three survey methods – the Management Standards Indicator Tool, the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale and the General Health Questionnaire.
They found that zero-hours contracts did not seem to adversely affect the general wellbeing of most care workers, which they said was “surprising”.
However, there were a greater proportion of care workers on zero-hours contracts who scored negatively on the measure of general mental health than those on contracted hours, they said.
“A greater proportion of individuals with zero-hours contracts had scores above accepted mental health cut-offs”, they concluded in the journal Occupational Medicine.
The researchers highlighted that employee understanding of their role and job control were both important factors for their health.
“We observed that deficiencies in respondents’ understanding of their role and the amount of control over their work were significant psychosocial workplace hazards which require improvement,” they said.
Zero-hours contracts ‘linked to worse mental health’
Lead study author Dr Jermaine Ravalier said: “Despite there being such intense media discussions regarding both zero-hours contracts and the role of domiciliary care workers, there has never been any objective, academic research into either of these subjects.
“Care workers do an incredibly important job – they maintain and improve the life of those who require care – and yet so many of them are on zero-hours contracts,” he said.
“A particularly interesting finding was that those on zero-hours contracts were more likely to have worsened mental health,” said Dr Ravalier.
“This is not to say that zero-hours contracts cause worsened mental health, but perhaps opportunities for those with worsened mental health are more limited to those roles in which people are employed on zero-hours contracts,” he noted.
What are zero-hours contracts?
Zero-hours contracts are agreements between employers and workers, where the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours, and the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered.
Office for National Statistics data showed that, between April and June 2016, about 113,000 of the 769,000 workers who provided home care or were employed in care homes were on zero-hours contracts.
At around one in seven, it represents a substantial and rapid increase on 2015, when one in 10 care workers were on zero-hours contracts.