Survey reveals extent of stress at work

A new survey to examine and report job satisfaction and job stress on a regular basis - the "climate-at-work index" - was created in Upper Austria in 1997. Initial results reveal that, against an overall index of 100, blue-collar workers score only 96, civil servants 99 and white-collar workers 104.

The Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK) of the province of Upper Austria has recently commissioned a survey on job satisfaction and job stress. Two institutes, SORA and IFES, cooperated in carrying out the research, with the latter doing the actual survey and the former responsible for conceptual work and for the analysis and interpretation of the data. The first survey was carried out in June 1997 and is being repeated every three months. The survey involves 26 questions, selected from a much larger batch after extensive testing, being put to about 900 respondents at home addresses. Two quarterly surveys are combined into one for more reliable and more detailed results. All respondents are Austrian nationals.

The results are being presented in the form of an index, called the "climate-at-work index" (Arbeitsklima-Index). The index is made up of four components - "society", "company", "work" and "expectations". The society component in turn comprises two subcomponents - optimism about society and social status. The company component comprises four subcomponents - business outlook, image, leadership style and benefits. The work component is the most complex with eight subcomponents - general job satisfaction, general life satisfaction, working time rules, income, social integration, psychological stress, physical stress and innovation stress. The expectations component has two subcomponents: career and employment opportunities. Apart from the 26 questions contributing to the index, there is information on about 35 other variables with information on the respondents, their position in the labour market and their work.

Results

The overall index in June 1997 stood at 73 on a scale from 0 to 100. As the authors argue, the figure does not so much reflect a great or small level of contentment as the construction of the index. It is a reference figure useful for comparisons against measures on the same scale. Consequently, they present the 73 points as 100% of the overall index and go on to compare results for various groups in relation to it. The following points stand out.

  • The index for white-collar workers is 4% above the overall index, while public servants attain 99% and blue-collar workers only 96%.
  • White-collar workers do best on all four components, though in the society component civil servants are equally happy. Blue-collar workers do worst in three components. Only in the company component do civil servants fare worse.
  • Consequently, industries dominated by white-collar work have higher values than others. Banking and insurance reach 107%, education 104%, health services 103% and wholesale and retail trade 99%, while manufacturing industries such as wood processing at 97% or textiles at only 92% fare less well.
  • On the general job satisfaction subcomponent, staff in education have the highest scores. They are also particularly positive on the outlook for society and their personal social status. The high overall scores in banking and insurance derive, among others, from relatively high scores in the company component and in the career subcomponent. The latter is particularly low in the textiles industry.
  • Education is an important indicator of satisfaction. University graduates reach 105%, as do high-school graduates, while vocational secondary school graduates reach 102%. By contrast, apprenticeship graduates come out at only 98% and workers with only compulsory schooling at 96%.
  • However, education is not the sole determinant. Blue-collar workers attain lower values than white-collar workers even if they have the same education. This is particularly pronounced for employees with vocational secondary schooling. In fact, while satisfaction in all four components grows with education in the case of white-collar workers, it shrinks in the case of blue-collar workers. There is one exception: better educated blue-collar workers are more optimistic about the future than less well educated ones.
  • In the civil service, high-school graduates, at 104%, show greater satisfaction than university graduates (102%). This results from the university graduates scoring badly on the work component. In private industry, salary-earning university graduates reach 110%. This makes them the most satisfied group of employees.
  • Civil servants are particularly unhappy with the leadership styles of their superiors, and they regard their chances of re-employment in the case of dismissal as particularly bleak. On both these counts, blue-collar workers do substantially better than civil servants, and white-collar workers do marginally better.
  • Psychological stress is experienced foremost by civil servants. White-collar workers are 8% behind and blue-collar workers another 10%.
  • Innovation is also being experienced as much more stressful by civil servants than by white- or blue-collar workers.

The current index is available on the World-Wide Web. A quarterly printed newsletter in German is also available and can be ordered from Angela Schober on tel: 43 732 6906-2197, or e-mail: presse@ak-ooe.at.

Reactions

The index was widely reported in the press, for the most part in conjunction with a press conference by the chair of the Union of Restaurant, Hotel and Personal Services Workers (Gewerkschaft Hotel, Gastgewerbe, persönlicher Dienst, HGPD), who laid particular stress on the low scores of "his" industry and of blue-collar workers in general. Employers' organisations reacted hardly at all. The press reported only one brief statement casting doubt on the validity of the survey, though without any specific critique.

Commentary

The index results are compatible with other surveys, such as the 1993 Social Survey, and with scattered reports by counselling agencies and the like. There has been a flurry of press releases and oral reports over the last two years that have used the word "mobbing" to describe psychological stress at work. The Upper Austrian Chamber of Labour was particularly active in promoting the issue.

However, the survey's biggest drawback is, perhaps, its exclusion of non-Austrians. They make up about 10% of the labour force and are regularly reported by the Central Statistical Office (Österreichisches Statistisches Zentralamt, ÖSTAT) to be disproportionately employed in the lowest-paying positions with the least favourable working conditions. It is not obvious how their inclusion might affect the index. Though largely blue-collar workers, they might, in spite of their objectively poor conditions, turn out in fact to be a relatively contented subgroup, thus improving the index position of blue-collar workers. At the same time, white-collar workers might be more likely to express feelings of discrimination by answering negatively on a whole range of index variables. While the overall index might not, in the final analysis, be affected very much, the relative positions of a number of groups and subgroups could thus be affected. (August Gächter, IHS)

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