The impact of change
In short: redundancies and work intensification, both of which are contributing to rising levels of stress and mental ill health.
The main consequences of changes we've outlined are:
- Job insecurity
- Work intensification: fewer people doing more
- Work monitoring & surveillance
- Worker flexibility on employers' terms, rather than agreed with staff
- High emotional demands – bullying and harassment
- Work-life imbalance
For most people, the notion of lifetime job security has long gone. Many are now on new forms of employment contract, having been subject to privatisation or outsourcing. These include individual contracts, replacing collective with personal bargaining.
Fewer people/same workload, same people/more demands: work intensification arises when job losses and automation mean increasing workloads and added pressures for the staff who remain. Any 'survivor' knows, it's not just the changes in staffing levels, it's also the loss of expertise, experience and corporate memory, not to mention the departure of our colleagues and friends. For many, working excessive hours has become the norm, typically without compensation (time-off in lieu or overtime) and social support.
UK workers are the worst offenders in Europe, with the average British worker reportedly giving their employer £5000 a year in extra hours! Pace of work has also increased. More and more workers are saying they experience high levels of pressure stemming form high speed tasks and/or strict deadlines, lifting heavy weights and arduous postures.
Surveys show the higher the pace constraints the more probable the worker's perception that their health is threatened. The most common health problems reported by workers are backache, musculo-skeletal pain, fatigue and stress.
As well as automation, developments in IT have had an impact. Its universal introduction, often with little consideration of its ergonomic impact, has set new expectations and demands by accelerating the volume and speed of information. IT has also enabled the 'big brother' effect (IT surveillance) and company-controlled 'flexibility' .
Monitoring and surveillance
More than half of British employees report that a computerised system logs or records their work. Nearly a quarter say this information is used to check their performance. Again, the tendency is to work excessive hours. But another impact is on worker autonomy as employees feel increasingly 'controlled' by their employer.
'Flexible' work practices & patterns
Technology has enabled employers to introduce greater 'flexibility' in working practices, such as remote or home-based work. However, for many employees this has meant working in greater isolation with little management consideration of the impact of lone working: the loss of peer support, the blurring of work/non-work activity and, for many Prospect members, the greater risk of assault.
This so-called flexibility is essentially lean and mean, disintegrating 'communities of interest' and leaving remote workers to make crucial decisions, often in a hurry, without peer support.
Working alone requires a great deal more attention and calls for the repeated review of a diagnosis before making a decision. If we add the stakes of presumed responsibility in the case of failure, isolation can lead to genuine mental overload.
A distinction needs to be made between the traditional trade union understanding of 'flexitime' (flexible working time) and management's 'more flexible' working patterns such as irregular working hours or split shifts.
Unions regard flexibility as referring to working hours that can be freely chosen. This is positive for employees who have a say, within boundaries, over their working hours as it enables them to reconcile work and non-work activities. Whereas irregular or variable working patterns are mostly negative for people's well-being, especially if employee autonomy is low – ie company-controlled flexibility. So in the event that variability in working hours cannot be avoided, it is crucial that this is planned well in advance to provide some reliability as a planning basis for employees.
Inevitably these changes spill over into private life with the potential for work-life conflict and adverse effects on well-being.There are also factors such as increased drinking or smoking during periods of stress that result in a higher risk of illness.
Change and Prospect
The changing world of work is impacting on our lives in a variety of ways:
- our perception and experience of employment – including our contractual arrangements, terms and conditions, transfers of undertakings, pensions etc
- our health, well-being and work-life balance – workplace change is associated with significant increases in stress, mental ill health and musculoskeletal disorders ; and
- Prospect's capacity to be cohesive and to respond.
Prospect's efforts to address change are made through:
- promoting Good Work - Prospect is developing guidance on the good work agenda due out later in 2013
- understanding and using the law and associated stress prevention guidance
- attempting to shape fair change
- our WorkTime YourTime campaign
- assisting our members to understand stress and try to look after themselves
- supporting and representing those with stress