Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Working lives

The working lives programme of research supports the creation of new insights from research and datasets that help us to understand contemporary transformations in work and working lives, the causal factors involved, and the implications for individuals, businesses, practitioners and policymakers.

Partners involved:
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The scope and what we're doing

Research funded under the working lives programme of research seeks to improve understanding around contemporary work and work-life developments to support meaningful policy and practice changes.

We fund research, data collection and innovations to help people, organisations and policymakers make sense of all aspects of contemporary work and employment, transforming working lives for the better.

This will create benefits for people living in the UK in 2 key ways.

Individual perspective

From an individual perspective: many people want access to good quality, healthy jobs with safe working practices that enable them to meet the everyday cost of living. Our research focuses on improving how people experience work, a core component of most people’s lives.

Economic perspective

From an economic perspective: the research looks at ultimately improving the efficiency of the labour market, developing UK human capital and improving working practices to boost UK performance and productivity.

Our research areas include:

  • human resource management
  • employment and workplace relations
  • sociology of work
  • work psychology
  • labour market studies
  • labour economics
  • organisational behaviour
  • job quality and design
  • health and wellbeing
  • equality, diversity and inclusion
  • labour mobility
  • career transitions

The findings from the different projects will build research evidence for effective future interventions.

Below are some examples of our programmes.

Transforming Working Lives (TWL) programme

Transforming Working Lives is a £3.9 million investment in seven new research projects to improve the world of work for UK workers.

The projects will explore UK workers’ experiences of workplace power dynamics and managing career transitions to transform them for the better.

Voice and power in contemporary online retail UK warehouses

Led by Professor Niall Cullinane, Queen’s University Belfast

This project will explore to what extent workers’ interests are being heard and addressed in online retail warehouses and what types of support are needed to counter any evident deficits in the capacity to voice effectively.

Amplifying employee voice and hearing the unheard

Led by Dr Stewart Johnstone, University of Strathclyde

This research will develop an innovative multilevel study of amplifying employee voices and hearing the unheard, investigating whether or not contemporary workers feel informed at work.

Minority ethnic doctors’ career transitions in medicine

Led by Dr Etyln Kenny, University of Birmingham

This study will explain how ethnic minority doctors and would-be doctors, or ‘aspirants’, manage their transitions throughout their medical careers.

Making space for people in truck driving work

Led by Dr Debbie Hopkins, University of Oxford

This research will improve the logistics sector and workers’ lives in the UK and beyond and examine how the work truck drivers do is represented by the mass media and within the sector.

Read more about the trucking lives project.

Transition to parenthood in UK SMEs

Led by Dr Bianca Stumbitz, Middlesex University London

Small employers have the lowest awareness about the rights of pregnant and newly maternal employees. This project will:

  • investigate the transition to parenthood for employees working in UK small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs)
  • offer low-cost and scalable solutions to manage new parenthood in these workplaces effectively

Read more about the transition to parenthood in UK SMEs project.

Transitions of young workers in the UK labour market: consequences for careers, earnings, health and wellbeing

Led by Professor Jason Heyes, The University of Sheffield

The project will enhance our understanding of diversity in labour market experiences and outcomes of young workers by comparing the impact of:

  • gender
  • race
  • ethnicity
  • disability

Read more about the transitions of young workers in the UK labour market project.

L-earning: rethinking young women’s working lives

Led by Dr Kim Allen, University of Leeds

This project will improve our understanding of how gendered inequalities emerge and exist in early forms of work, exploring how paid work fits and is reconciled within young women’s wider lives and relationships.

Read more about the L-earning project.

Collaboration with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

As part of its programme of work innovation, the OECD collaborates with global governments to measure and analyse the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on training needs and labour markets.

OECD is a UKRI international AI collaboration partner. ESRC has participated in the OECD’s AI in Work, Innovation, Productivity and Skills programme to strengthen the UK evidence base.

The studies funded as part of the programme include:

  • impact of artificial intelligence on the labour market: OECD AI surveys of employers and workers
  • artificial intelligence as an equaliser: how AI can help overcome labour market barriers

In addition, ESRC has provided a contribution to the 2022 ‘Risks that matter’ survey to ensure that the UK is represented in the data set.

Accredited researchers can be granted access to the OECD data, see contact details below.

ProPEL Hub

The PrOPEL Hub (productivity outcomes of workplace practice, engagement and learning) is a significant initiative designed to support improvements in productivity through enhanced workplace practice and employee engagement.

Based at the University of Strathclyde, the hub brings together leading researchers from eight UK universities alongside the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to develop practical tips and tools to help businesses take advantage of the latest insights and expertise.

The hub focuses on supporting the development of high-quality, inclusive and engaging workplaces that help tackle the UK’s productivity puzzle.

Skills and Employment Survey (SES) 2023

The Skills and Employment Survey is a long-running series of surveys of working people stretching back to the mid-1980s. The survey provides unique insights into the working lives of those living in Britain, and how the nature of work and the skills used at work have changed.

Fieldwork for the eighth survey in the series began in autumn 2023 with the preliminary results due out towards the end of 2024.

Linked employer-employee data (LEED)

ESRC recently commissioned an options report (PDF, 838KB) exploring a potential new UK-linked employer-employee dataset (LEED).

This builds on the Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS), a national survey of people at work in Britain carried out by the former UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and co-funded by ESRC.

​​Further information on the survey series is available from the WERS website.​

Why we're doing it

Work and working lives are experiencing significant changes, including how they’re organised, where they take place and what they involve.

New economic sectors, new forms of contractual arrangements and additional technologies in the workplace have created new opportunities for many people. But they have also increased uncertainty and complexity.

COVID-19 has also had a major impact on workplaces and working practices. The long-term implications of the pandemic are still being assessed and are likely to be felt for some time to come.

We recognise the impact of broader economic forces on work and employment, including the cost-of-living crisis, and how this affects many people in different situations. Our research seeks to support and help employees, employers and business owners navigate a challenging work environment.

ESRC-funded research is improving our knowledge and understanding of:

  • contemporary lived experience, for example:
    • how people and organisations are experiencing the world of work
    • how this affects them, their businesses, friends, families and communities
    • the implications for society and the broader economy
  • policies and practices and how they are and aren’t meeting requirements
  • balancing academic knowledge (for instance empirical data and mapping changes over time) and ensuring research has a real-world impact, including providing robust evidence to support change to improve working lives

Opportunities, support and resources available

Search for open funding opportunities on the funding finder.

ReWAGE publications

ReWAGE is an independent expert advisory group modelled on SAGE and co-chaired by Warwick and Leeds Universities. It analyses the latest work and employment research to advise the government on addressing the challenges facing the UK’s productivity and prosperity, such as COVID-19, the cost-of-living crisis and labour shortages.

Browse ReWAGE publications

Data support

Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) is a partnership transforming how researchers access the UK’s wealth of public sector data to enable better-informed policy decisions that improve people’s lives.

See ADR UK’s World of Work theme

Read about the ADR UK project Wage and employment dynamics in Britain

Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, is based at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. It’s the most extensive longitudinal study of its kind and provides crucial information for researchers and policymakers on the changes and stability of people’s lives in the UK.

See Understanding Society’s data on employment

Further information

See how ESRC invests in research on economy

See ESRC investment in productivity research

Past projects, outcomes and impact

The research we fund impacts the working lives of employees, employers, businesses and the general public.

ReWAGE was convened to provide high-quality, evidence-based advice to policymakers to understand better how they can most effectively shape the UK’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The advisory group has since expanded its remit to make recommendations on tackling a more comprehensive range of issues facing work and employment in the UK. It produces many publications.

The Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS) was the flagship survey of employment relations in Britain. It collected data from employers, employee representatives and employees in a representative sample of workplaces.

The 2011 WERS was the last of the series of surveys. It was co-funded by ESRC, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

Who to contact

If you have questions about the working lives programme of research you can contact us at:

Email: esrcenquiries@esrc.ukri.org

You can also contact the Transforming Working Lives team:

Email: TWL@esrc.ukri.org

Last updated: 20 October 2023

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