It is often assumed that happy workers are more productive than unhappy ones. But the evidence for this is limited. What unhappy workers do is stay away from work. A mild cold, or their team playing at home, may be all it takes for someone who finds work unsatisfying to call in sick. Similarly, children do not typically play truant because they want to enjoy the big wide world. They stay away from school because they find it distressing or unappealingly irrelevant.
These and other failures to participate in expected commitments, including not turning up for doctors’ appointments, or to take up benefits such as free school meals or welfare payments, are all aspects of what Robin G. Milne designates as ‘civic disengagement.’ To review these breakdowns in the social contract he has brought together a team of contributors from the University of Glasgow, where he is based, as a theme for Contemporary Social Science (volume 11, number 1). Each aspect of disengagement is considered separately in order to determine its causes and consequences and any discernible trends over time.
The focus of Milne and his colleagues is on engagement within the UK, but the impetus for it came from Harvard political scientist Robert Putman’s work in the US. He reported that public engagement in America across many areas, from being part of religious groups to volunteering and political activism had declined with the advent of television. The outpouring across the world in the last few days of protests against President Trump does raise questions about whether other processes are replacing the forms of engagement that Putman studied. But the attention he drew to the significance of involvement in public activities has relevance to a much wider range of forms of engagement in social processes, especially in Western society where the State offers so much to its citizens and expects their co-operation in return.
These offerings include benefits to help the poor and vulnerable, and those with children, as well as free education and in the UK free health care. Participation in the workforce is another aspect of citizen involvement that is a crucial component of an effective society. All of these are explored in this special issue of Contemporary Social Science.
In general, as Milne makes clear in his introduction to this special issue, the take up of Child Benefit, a financial payment to every family in the UK, has been very widespread. It is in other areas, notably attendance at work, school or doctors’ appointments, or the uptake of Housing Benefit and Free School Meals, that there is a continued significant shortfall. The reasons for this disparity are instructive.
All these forms of engaging with institutions may be considered to have pull and push aspects. There is the pull in relation to the ease of access to the involvement and the push of the costs required to engage. This is illustrated by the almost total take up of the Child Benefit system that is associated with its simplicity of access. But importantly it lacks the stigma of, for example, free school meals.
The stigma associated with receiving a benefit is one example of the limitations of a simple economic analysis of civic engagement. In recent years economists have started coming round to the view, well known to psychologists at least since the writings of Sigmund Freud, that many important decisions people make are not strictly rational or based on financial costs and benefits.
The take up of free school meals is a good example of what may seem a logical choice being undermined by issues such as being with friends or just not liking the food served. As Stephanie Chambers and her colleagues point out in their study of this, providing opportunities for young people to consult on menus and social arrangements in dining halls would encourage more pupils to benefit from this important offering.
The involvement of patients in the arrangements for outpatient consultant appointments is another example, reviewed by Robin Milne, which demonstrates how relying on simple logic of the benefits of such free appointments is not enough to reduce the numbers of those who do not turn up. When the appointment booking system is ‘patient-focused,’ allowing choice of times and dates, and sending clear letters with details, requiring a positive acceptance of the appointment, then far fewer people miss their booked appointment. Paradoxically, this benefits the health authorities more than the patients. The health service has a clearer idea of who is going to turn up, but the patients who don’t attend are put back into the system with their family doctor.
Absence from work, perhaps more than any other civic disengagement, has great economic impact on the organisation and on the worker. But here again a simple cost/benefit analysis does not do justice to the psychological complexities of why people stay away from their places of employment. As Ewan Macdonald and Kaveh Asanati demonstrate, in their review of the correlates of absences, there are many factors that contribute, not only sickness. Job satisfaction and its negative relationship to the size of the organisation have well established links to unwarranted absence rates. Of course there are genuine illnesses that require staying away from work, but if these are handled effectively between the organisation and the employee there can be considerable benefits to all concerned.
All these forms of absence, by not benefiting from opportunities available, have wide-ranging unwanted consequences. Children playing truant are far more likely to be involved in crime. People off work for any length of time can lose their jobs and undermine their social status. The pressures on the health service are made worse by people not attending for appointments. But in all these cases, and many other forms of civic engagement, the bases of these absences have to be understood in social and psychological terms, not just economic ones.