Coronavirus: What is 'essential work?'

31 March 2020

By Nigel Driffield, John Rudd, Mark Johnson and Daniel Read

The Government now has a clear message for the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic - stay home and save lives. Yet there are still exceptions to this rule. People can still leave the house to buy essential supplies, attend medical appointments, to exercise once a day and for "essential work".

In response to various requests, we decided to sit down (virtually) and attempt to define what we mean by “essential work”. We are, collectively professors of behavioural science, international business, marketing and operations. Our research spans human behaviour, international investment, labour markets, operations, supply chains, marketing, consumer behaviour and branding.

We started with the premise that essential work is easy to understand as a concept, but both difficult to define and to actually see. It impacts both the products and services we consume. We have all seen the excessive demand placed on supermarkets for ‘essential’ products.

While stores that sell foodstuffs are certainly essential, there has been little consideration as to the supply chains that sit behind the stores. Manufacturing these goods is therefore essential work. Moreover, the farmers that are involved in the food chain are essential, as are packaging producers.

The economy is a network of interlinked relations and activities, so intertwined that in one sense all work is the same work, and that work is running the economy. If you pick one activity as “essential”, then you immediately see a thousand other activities needed to support that activity, with no clear line separating essential from inessential.

Essential work also takes place in services. The most visible being healthcare. However, something that has not been considered as essential are repair services such as plumbers, electricians, telecoms engineers and other trades-people that keep the devices and appliances in our homes working. Certainly, we can all go a few months without a haircut, however, we cannot live without working heat, light, electricity and broadband given how we are all moving as swiftly as possible to virtual working. These are all essential work but little discussed.

Does business have a role to play? Clearly, in order to understand the complex supply chains that put food on our table, water in our taps and heat in our homes, the private sectors needs to have a voice. Some “non-essential” businesses have clearly taken a decision to say nothing. We all commented that many companies have appeared to take the same stance, with “non-essential” businesses seeking to take their lead from Government.

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The Government’s stance has (in effect) left some extremely tough decisions in the hands of organisational leaders and owners. Some have risen to this challenge, and through authentic, sensitive and positive actions have (and will continue to) enhance their brand image and reputation of their organisations.

Others have clearly got it wrong, by seeking to define themselves as “essential” to obtain personal benefit, and some organisations (and one in particular) opt for marketing actions and communications, perceived as crass, uncaring and insensitive by many, and compounded matters by attempting to “blame” the Government for a lack of clarity.

One sector that is typically seen as vital to the workings of a modern economy, but has been remarkably silent is the financial services sector. Many financial services firms are closed, or not available by phone. At this point in the tax year at any other time this would be seen as akin to negligence, whereas this year it has received no comment. At the same time however, as the Government seeks to channel funds to SMEs and the self-employed, certain financial institutions become key in delivering this.

However we define this, in terms of 'what's in and what's out' we run the risk of omitting one crucial aspect. These 'essential services' are operated by people, who need support and social engagement in order to function. We can get too caught up in the prototypical “necessities” of life, and assume that as long as we offer everybody a few hunks of bread, some water, clean warm clothing and shelter we have covered the basics.

We are therefore forbidden to go to skating rinks, bingo halls, cinemas, gyms and museums. These are unessential because they don’t satisfy primary needs. But humans cannot live on bread alone. We need the social contact provided by these unnecessary places. Literal social isolation is starvation. 

The internet is undoubtedly now the number one necessity of life, so maintaining unbroken internet access to all households is top of many people’s lists of essential services.

Finally, we all noted the contrast between the dominant narrative on essential work and the prevailing commentary on immigration and labour markets over the past five years. Many of the roles that are described within our essential services corpus, have often been dismissed as 'low skill' or 'low wage. Universities, legal offices and Canary Wharf may be empty but life goes on. Whereas if all of the less well-paid people in essential services were to stop then anarchy would soon prevail.


Nigel Driffield is Professor of Strategy and International Business. He teaches Law and the International Business Environment on the Undergraduate programme.

John Rudd is Professor of Marketing. He teaches Marketing Management on the Undergraduate programme and Marketing on the Executive MBA and Distance Learning MBA.

Daniel Read is Professor of Behavioural Science. His teaching includes Behavioural Economics on the Undergraduate programme and Negotiation Theory and Management on the Executive MBA.

Mark Johnson is Associate Professor of Operations Management. He teaching includes Business Analytics on the Undergraduate programme and Management Operations on the Executive MBA.

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