Work activation regimes and well-being of unemployed people : rhetoric, risk and reality of quasi-marketization in the UK Work Programme

Carter, Eleanor and Whitworth, Adam (2017) Work activation regimes and well-being of unemployed people : rhetoric, risk and reality of quasi-marketization in the UK Work Programme. Social Policy and Administration, 51 (5). pp. 796-816. ISSN 0144-5596 (

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Well-being and employment activation have become central and intertwined policy priorities across advanced economies, with the mandation of unemployed claimants towards employability interventions (e.g. curriculum vitae preparation and interview skills). Compelled job search and job transitions are in part justified by the well-being gains that resulting employment is said to deliver. However, this dominant focus within the activation field on outcome well-being – the well-being improvement triggered by a transition to paid work – neglects how participation in activation schemes can itself affect well-being levels for unemployed people – what we term ‘process well-being’ effects. Combining theoretical literature with empirical work on the UK's large-scale quasi-marketized Work Programme activation scheme, we develop the limited existing academic discussion of process well-being effects, considering whether and how activation participation mediates the negative well-being effects of unemployment, irrespective of any employment outcomes. We further relate variation in such process well-being effects to the literature on activation typologies, in which ‘thinner’ work-first activation interventions are linked to weaker process well-being effects for participants compared to ‘thicker’ human capital development interventions. Confirming these expectations, our empirical work shows that Work Programme participants have, to date, experienced a largely ‘thin’ activation regime in which participants are both expected to, and empirically demonstrate, similar if not lower levels of process well-being than those who are openly unemployed. These concerning findings speak to all nations seeking to promote the well-being of unemployed people and particularly those perusing ‘black box’ activation schemes based around quasi-marketization, devolution and New Public Management.