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British workers feel they have less say in their jobs and are having to work harder than ever

1 October 2018

Workers in Britain feel that they are working harder than ever before, new research reveals.

Frustrated worker

The Skills and Employment Survey, a joint project between Cardiff University, UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and the University of Oxford, has been researching the views of workers since the mid-1980s.

The latest statistics from the study, which releases findings every five years, showed almost a half (46%) of those questioned strongly agree that their job requires them to work very hard compared to just a third (32%) of workers in 1992. The proportion of workers reporting that they must work at very high speed for three-quarters or more of the time rose by 4 percentage points to reach 31% in 2017, its highest level since 1986.  

School teachers in state schools top the list of employees who view their jobs as making them work very hard. A remarkable 92% of teachers strongly agreed that their job requires them to work very hard, up from 82% in 2012. 

Nurses are not far behind. Like teachers, their perceived work intensity is much greater than for other professional workers. In the 1990s, 55% of nurses strongly agreed that their job required them to work very hard, but this had risen to 70% between 2012 and 2017.

Alan Felstead, Research Professor at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences and leader of the research team, said: “The survey offers some troubling findings at a time when real wages are stagnating, our results suggest that workers are working harder and have less scope to carry out their job tasks as they would like.”

Francis Green, Professor of Education and Labour Economics at the IOE, said: “Work intensification commonly comes about from new technologies, which make it possible to fill up idle gaps in the working day and pile on the pressure. But in the case of teachers and nurses the explanation is simpler: the intensification of their work comes from increased workload having to be completed during the time available for work.”

He added: “The survey’s findings about teachers confirms the necessity for the government to take action to address the problem of work overload, which is a major reason for low teacher retention and hence a drain on our teacher training resources.”

The study also reveals further significant changes in job quality between 2012 and 2017. Task discretion – the extent to which people can influence what they do in their daily work – is the type of participation which has the strongest connection with employee well-being and motivation. This has fallen once more, having already dropped considerably during the 1990s. There was a 3 percentage point drop in the proportion of workers saying that they have a great deal influence over what tasks they do and a 5 percentage point drop in the level of influence they have over how to do them. 

However, job insecurity has fallen sharply since 2012 with the percentage reporting an evens or higher chance of job loss dropping from an all-time high of 18% in 2012 to an all-time low of 9% in 2017.

More work intensification and reduced job control in combination is a well-known recipe for “high strain” jobs, which can cause workplace stress. The survey finds that high strain jobs have become more prevalent.  For women, the proportion rose by five percentage points between 2012 and 2017, leaving one in five women at an elevated risk of stress. For men, the jump of four percentage points, up to 15% of jobs, took place between 2006 and 2012. Among school-teachers, 28% were in high strain jobs, and 72% reported that they always or often came home from work exhausted. 

‘Work Intensity in Britain', one of the three reports published, says, that if employers “want to encourage an engaged and committed workforce, it is important to design jobs flexibly, providing adequate support and allowing more participation and task discretion.”

The findings also show that:

  • Consultative meetings and problem-solving groups declined between 2012 and 2017, falling by eight and two percentage points respectively.
  • This is worrying since influence through organisational participation was associated with considerable benefits for well-being with higher levels of enthusiasm, an increase in the perception of organisational fairness and a reduced level of fear about organisational change.
  • Risk of job loss is at its lowest level in over 30 years – less than one in ten (9%) workers in Britain in 2017 reported that they had a better than evens chance of losing their job in the next 12 months. This is half the proportion (18%) of workers who made a similar assessment in 2012.
  • Anxiety about changes to the job have also fallen dramatically. For example, in 2012, 37% of employees were anxious about having pay reduced, but by 2017 this had fallen to 28%, with anxiety levels falling more quickly for men than for women.

Three reports published, ‘Work Intensity in Britain’, ‘Participation at Work in Britain’ and ‘Insecurity at Work in Britain’, are part of the Skills and Employment Survey 2017.
The Skills and Employment Survey 2017 (SES), carried out by researchers from Cardiff University, UCL Institute of Education and Nuffield College, Oxford, obtained its information from a representative sample of workers in Britain. A total of 3,300 workers, aged 20 to 65, were interviewed for the research, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Department for Education and Cardiff University.

Media contact

Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations
Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 8515
Email: rowan.walker@ucl.ac.uk

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