Stress symptoms increase among employees

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In autumn 1998, following several research reports indicating increased stress and a higher pace of work during the 1990s, Finnish trade unions have been focusing attention on employees' ability to cope. Employers deny that stress symptoms have increased solely due to more demanding work. In their view, people's whole lifestyles have become more hectic.

One of the central issues under discussion in Finnish industrial relations circles in autumn 1998 has been the problem of "burn-out" and stress among employees. Especially after the recession of 1990, the problem seems to be plaguing a growing number of wage earners, and various research reports indicate that the pace and quantity of work have increased drastically. More and more employees feel that their workload is overwhelming, and this is resulting in psychological symptoms of various kinds. Now, trade unions are becoming worried about this development, and are trying to find remedies in order to increase the ability of employees to cope.

Some research findings

According to a recently published 1998 working environment survey by Statistics Finland, some negative phenomena are hindering the positive trends in this area. One of the biggest changes in the 1990s has been the intensified pace of work. An orientation towards productivity and flexibility has resulted in growing pressure at the workplace, and insecurity, competition and fixed-term jobs have increased. Work is causing more mental strain than before. A rushed atmosphere and insecurity as to job continuation are reflected in the working community, and social conflicts at the workplace have become more common.

The labour market situation has changed noticeably. In the corresponding survey for 1997, every third wage earner reported having been unemployed, or laid off, at least once during the preceding five years. The 1998 study affirmed that the average period of continuous unemployment had increased to 12 months.

Research by the Institute of Occupational Health in 1997 revealed that stress amongst the Finnish population of working age was more common than expected. Over half the respondents in a survey experienced stress symptoms to some extent. About one in five was extremely tired due to work, and about 7% were suffering from severe "burn-out" with all its symptoms. The incidence of stress varied depending on the sector and the nature of the work.

The general incidence and seriousness of stress were found to be accentuated in agriculture and forestry, education, finance, insurance, accommodation and restaurant services. In agriculture and forestry, besides the overall level of stress, all its various symptoms were accentuated. The report suggests that underlying the evolutionary process involved may be the societal developments of the last few years. Structural changes in business life, and also internationalisation, have caused insecurity. Furthermore, the drastic transition taking place in the finance and insurance sector, with its restructuring and reorganisation, is likely to be one significant reason for the stress among personnel there (almost half the jobs in that sector vanished during the Finnish financial crisis). As indicated by research from Almers and Aronsson (1991), organisational changes cause stress especially when people have no possibility of influencing the changes themselves.

In general, the study found that stress was more common among those who had suffered from restructuring measures at their workplaces, such as dismissals, personnel cuts, layoffs, and temporary posts being left unfilled. Serious stress symptoms were also experienced more commonly by those who worked long hours (over 50 hours per week) than by others.

The Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattiliittojen Keskusjärjestö, SAK) has attempted to discover the extent of stress by commissioning a Gallup survey. According to this research, conducted in August and September 1998, over 87% of Finns consider that the biggest disadvantage in Finnish working life nowadays is stress and decreased ability to cope with the work. Only 28% think that the pace of work could be accelerated in order to succeed in global competition. The problem is especially evident among members of SAK (91%) and the Confederation of Salaried Workers (Toimihenkilökeskusjärjestö, STTK) (96%). Among members of the Confederation of Unions for Academic Professionals in Finland (Akateemisten Toimihenkilöiden Keskusjärjestö, AKAVA), the proportion was 84%. Women were more concerned about this problem (92%) than were the men (81%).

A survey conducted in 1997 by the Finnish Employees Management Development Institute (FEMDI), indicate that senior staff also had problems in coping. Although most of this group had jobs with meaningful content, they also had some negative concerns in connection with their work - the most central being a fear of failure. In one survey among this group, over 40% of respondents expressed a fear that if they could not handle their jobs they would be dismissed. This anxiety had gained new dimensions because - in the view of the majority of the respondents - the workload of senior staff, the flood of information and the requirements of the work had increased during the last few years. Further, almost 80% considered that those changes had increased the pressure to produce results in their work. Despite this, about 50%-60% did not experience stress in their work. Slight stress was experienced by a third of the respondents. One in six, however, did experience considerable work stress, and about 10%-20% felt symptoms of illness due to stress. Around 5%-10% stated that they suffered from burn-out. Symptoms of stress appeared in 10%-20% of the female senior staff, whereas under 5% of the men suffered from such symptoms.

According to the Working Environment Barometer published by the Ministry of Labour (1997), the growth rate of mental stress in work is twice as great as that of physical strain. Public sector employees, and especially municipal workers, feel more than others that the mental stress in their jobs is increasing.

The views of the social partners

According to SAK, the job insecurity and stress burden borne by workers, and their problems in coping, are real factors in Finnish working life. The organisation considers that employees are being stretched to the limit and declares that the next government (elections are due in spring 1999) should arrange, together with the social partners, a comprehensive programme aimed at assisting coping in working life. According to SAK, the means to move towards a better working environment include increased preventive measures against burn-out, alternation between work and training, and cutting working time to match the European trend. In addition, "social accounting" should be introduced in companies. Competition at the expense of working conditions - and "speculation in labour power" - should be stopped, states SAK.

The Confederation of Finnish Industry and Employers (Teollisuuden ja Työnantajain Keskusliitto, TT) and the The Employers' Confederation of Service Industries (Palvelutyönantajat, PT) consider that the discussion is misleading because stress symptoms are subjective. What is normal for one can cause stress for others. According to the employers, the issue concerns stress and fatigue symptoms that can manifest themselves during work, but there is by no means always any evidence that the symptoms are caused by the work, and the reactions of different individuals can vary from one extreme to another - often as physiological phenomena.

Furthermore, employers criticise the research methods. The research is often survey studies, in which very transitory feelings and emotions can affect people's answers. Employers also stress the employees' own responsibility - lifestyles have become more hectic even in free time, and that may prevent recuperation from the efforts of work. Stress symptoms cannot be blamed entirely on the employer.

According to the Commission for Local Authority Employers (Kunnallinen Työmarkkinalaitos, KT), there is a developing trend for the better in this area. The organisation states, nevertheless, that burn-out depends not only on work or its amount or on the working environment, but also on each individual's ability to cope with his or her life situation as a whole. Moreover, insecurity in connection with societal developments may increase the experience of burn-out.

In the view of the State Employer's Office (Valtion Työmarkkinalaitos, VTML), the problem should be addressed through preventive measures. In addition, it is necessary to promote health education concerning stress prevention and symptoms.

Commentary

According to the research reports, it seems obvious that stress and burn-out symptoms are increasingly being experienced. The accelerated pace of work and job insecurity, along with the phenomenon of fixed-term jobs, are clearly diminishing people's ability to cope in working life.

The influence of the recession can be seen in the growing orientation of working life toward results. Even if work and organisations are restructured, teamwork and the lowering of the organisational hierarchy do not remove the underlying pressure to achieve results. Competition is intensifying and requirements are becoming stricter, and many employees feel that the limit has been reached. On the other hand, stress and burn-out problems could be regarded as a fashionable phenomenon that is being widely publicised. When these problems are discussed, then they are also more easily observed. Furthermore, stress and burn-out can be very difficult to diagnose and measure, and it is difficult to say to what extent the symptoms are due to work.

The measures that tarde unions would like to see used in order to solve the problems, like shortening of working time, job-sharing and job alternation, are being met with rather stern resistance from the employers, and the practical solutions to the proposals may be difficult due to the complex considerations involved. The issues will also be crucial for the next government when preparing its programme. The next governing coalition and the next incomes policy agreement will have a vital role in seeking a solution to this severe problem. (Juha Hietanen, Ministry of Labour)

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