Deborah Meaden, businessperson and star of Dragon’s Den, suggests official employment figures should be distrusted, because of the erroneous inclusion of people working only one hour per week.

Multiple claims on social media suggest the UK government has recently ‘redefined’ employment.

These claims are either false or likely to be misleading.

In short

The ONS defines employment: The UK government does not define employment: the Office for National Statistics does. The ONS definition matches Eurostat, and accords with ILO guidelines.

Few people work few hours: Since 2000, about 1.5% of all workers say they usually work less than 6 hours a week in their main job.

The Definition of Employment

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) defines, for people aged 16 or over:

Employment: worked one hour or more in the week (either as an employee or self-employed), those with a job that they are temporarily away from (such as through illness and holidays), those on government-assisted training and work programmes, and those doing unpaid family work.

Unemployment: out of work, but actively seeking work in the past four weeks and available to start in the next two weeks, or have found a job and are waiting to start in the next two weeks;

Inactive: Without a job, and have not active sought work in the past four weeks, or are not not available to start work in the next two weeks.

A person aged 16 or over can either be employed, unemployed or inactive. Estimates come from the Labour Force Survey.

For those on government programmes, they are only classed as employed if engaging with any form of work, work experience or training. Otherwise, they are considered unemployed or economically inactive.

‘Unpaid family work’ means working for a family business, where the person does not receive a formal wage, but benefits from business profits.

The ONS uses the same definitions of employment, unemployment and inactivity to most other countries, the Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

There are some differences between countries in terms of what age the labour force starts at, but the ‘one hour per week’ criterion is common.

“Time for you to think for yourself”

We can consider that definition against various claims on social media.

It is false to suggest that someone only doing “unpaid volunteer work” is classed as employed. It is true that a person doing one hour a week is employed, but this is an international definition.

It is false to claim that a Secretary of State or a political party has “redefined” unemployment, as the UK government does not define this matter: the ONS does.

That definition is internationally comparable.


This image, shared nearly 200 times on the ‘We Support Jeremy Corbyn’ Facebook page, falsely asserts that “you don’t even have to work a single hour” be considered employed. The Labour Force Survey definition says you do.

The Distribution of Hours

Implying the classification of those who work only one hour per week drastically affects the employment estimates is likely to be misleading.

Respondents to the Labour Force Survey are asked how many hours they usually work in their main job. We can look at what percentage of all workers say they usually work less than six hours a week:

The percentage is rounded to one decimal place. (Source: ONS)

Since 2000, about 1.5% of all workers say they usually work less than six hours per week in their main job. The estimate for May to July 2018 is that 1.4% of all employed people usually work less than six hours a week.

Since that figure is relatively stable, changing the criterion for the number of hours cannot have a major effect on the trend in the overall employment rate.

The ONS defines employment: not the UK government. I would like to thank Richard Clegg of the ONS for directing me towards the HOUR02 dataset.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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