Why should we think about housing as an employment issue?
It is generally accepted that a stable home is a central plank in anyone’s life. So, it stands to reason that housing is also fundamental to employment and employability. But what housing issues should we be thinking about as employers, aiming to support employee wellbeing, and as employability professionals supporting unemployed people to get back into work?
Location, Location, Location
Before looking at the housing challenges being faced by people on a detail level, I thought it would be useful to take a bird’s eye view first.
The connection between housing with employment actually spans quite a broad spectrum of socio-economic issues, but location stands out as a main concern for a couple of reasons.
- Affordability of housing within a reasonable proximity to a workplace will determine how inclusive recruitment can really be, particularly for part-time and low paid jobs (low paid is classed as those paid less than two thirds of median hourly pay). So where someone lives can be a key determining factor in whether they can work, what work is available to them, and how much they are realistically able to earn, as well as determining their overall cost of living.
- Productivity, with a clear link between housing location and productivity this is a key factor for employers to consider. Interestingly this report from Mercers actually finds that productivity reduces in line with the length of the commute (employees commuting less than half an hour to get to work gain an additional seven days’ worth of productive time each year compared to those with commutes of 60 minutes or more), and that longer commutes appear to have a significant impact on mental wellbeing, “with longer-commuting workers 33% more likely to suffer from depression, 37% more likely to have financial concerns and 12% more likely to report multiple dimensions of work-related stress.” It also stands to reason that employee retention suffers from long distances.
Getting a job and keeping a job
In light of the importance of proximity, maximum 30 minutes journey time being considered to be the optimum for productivity and personal wellbeing, it’s really interesting to note the following:
Claimants for Universal Credit are expected to search for a job located up to 90 minutes travel from their home, a key feature of the DWP’s ‘Claimant Commitment’, the work search contract with DWP which has to be fulfilled for a claimant to successfully receive their benefit.
We need to be thinking carefully about this when supporting people in job search activities. When they get a job will they stay in it if they live too far away, while they’re working will their productivity be impacted by the distance they’re travelling, potentially impacting on how well they are regarded by their new employer, so also affecting future job search prospects if things don’t work out?
For current employees making sure that we really do focus some attention on supporting the welfare of staff who are commuting for over half an hour needs to be a priority for employers. Obviously the increased prevalence of homeworking has started to address this issue for some, but as we know many jobs practically can’t be done from home.
The impact of eviction and homelessness
Now moving on to thinking more about some of the real-life housing challenges people are facing, the worst case scenario has to be the threat of eviction and homelessness and the huge impact that this obviously has on families and employability.
An employee asking for time off work to ‘present as homeless’ to the local authority is unlikely to be something that HR teams have been faced with too regularly, but it really is an increasing problem that has grown even before the financial challenges presented by the pandemic. Alongside the need to take time off work, just facing the prospect of viewing emergency accommodation and the anxiety of being able to find a safe and affordable home as soon as possible can have a devastating effect on mental health and wellbeing. This often results in people being unable to work or, again, can lead to performance issues in the workplace.
If we take it back to basics, the basic physiological need for shelter as explicit in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the very foundation of a life well lived. Right now, it’s reported that 17.5 million people in Britain are facing a housing emergency.
That’s one in three adults, and what if you have children to think about too? With children included this number rises to a staggering 22 million people.
A recent report ‘Heads above Water’ by the National Federation of ALMOs analysing how council tenants and landlords have fared through the pandemic, demonstrated that 80% of income officers had reported higher rent arrears, 77% had seen increased demand for support services and the same number reported increased use of food banks and increased fuel poverty. Three quarters of income officers had also seen increased demand for hardship funds across the UK in the last year. A tidal wave is upon us.
Debt charity StepChange also reports a similar number of struggling tenants, and estimates that 150,000 are at risk of eviction. It says £370m of arrears has been built up as a result of Covid and that more than 850,000 households renting a home are worried about being evicted in the next few months, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Of these, 400,000 have already been served with an eviction notice or told they may be evicted and almost half a million other households are in arrears.
To make the situation worse, many local authorities are stating they will not consider people presenting as homeless with rent arrears for social housing, forcing people into the private rented sector with less security from eviction and poor living conditions, in part because private renters don’t feel able to complain to their landlord for fear of a retaliatory eviction. A number of local authorities have also stated that, unless they receive further funding, they will not be able to keep giving vital discretionary housing payments to tenants in critical need of them to keep them in their homes.
The rise in eviction and possible homelessness is an issue we cannot afford to ignore if we care about improving prospects of employment and employability. Support mechanisms need to be in place for people facing housing struggles, and whether they are employed or unemployed will bring its own challenges, but irrespective of employment status the challenges are significant when it comes to being ready and able to work.
What can we do to help?
The three most common triggers of homelessness in the last year were reported to be households no longer being able to stay with families and friends (32%), the loss of a private tenancy (13%) and domestic abuse (12%).
Even with increased government intervention through the pandemic the threat of homelessness has spiralled, and now the lifting of the eviction ban combined with the end of other government support – such as the job retention scheme, £20 uplift to Universal Credit and discretionary housing payments – which has kept millions of people above the poverty line and safe in their homes, over the next few months there are a lot more problems still to come.
There’s no question that housing is now in crisis as a result of the pandemic, for all of the wrong reasons, and people are significantly more likely to be facing housing-related issues than ever before, whether they are employed or not.
And because the landscape is ever-changing it’s hard to keep up. That was the driver for Society Matters’ launch of a new Housing Matters workshop, to ensure professionals supporting people to retain and gain employment are clear about the challenges being faced by the people they’re aiming to support, and to ensure they are aware of the practical help that’s available to families who are struggling with tenancies in both social housing and private rented accommodation.
Together, our priority needs to be to encourage people to be open about housing issues they’re facing, so they can be helped as early as possible.
People need to be helped to preserve the security of a safe home as a keystone. Only with this in place can they be expected to make positive progress towards, or hold down, a decent job.
By facing up to the complexities and challenges of the housing struggles that are being faced by so many people, there’s a greater chance for us to pass on the practical steps that can be taken to ensure that the priority of employment does not get left behind through a need to focus on basic survival.
Jayne Graham MBE and Adam Matthews, Society Matters cic
Society Matters cic’s mission is to mobilise knowledge so the system works, it works for everyone, and it powers the changes we need to be an equal and inclusive society.
We achieve this through a programme of unique and affordable social welfare and welfare benefits training and support services, designed and delivered by experts who have acute, front-end knowledge, and with social value embedded at their very core, so you can be sure we can help you to make your mark.