France: Work pressure intensifies in public and private sectors

Employees in France are facing increasing pressure at work from several sources, according to a government survey. The greatest stress comes from having to work quickly, or having to keep up with a production line. The report also says more workers are having their pace of work monitored by a computer.

According to the 6th Working Conditions Survey 2013 published by the French Ministry of Labour (Dares), work pressure in terms of pace of work increased between 2005 and 2013 (in French, 1.31 MB PDF), and appears to be linked to organisational change and feelings of greater job insecurity.

Methodology

Dares designs and analyses several types of surveys on working conditions. The scope of this one, the sixth in the series of Working Conditions surveys carried out since 1984,  is restricted to employees. The methodology consisted of:

  • a face-to-face questionnaire;
  • a written questionnaire completed by the respondent, addressing more sensitive issues, such as hostile behaviour experienced at work;
  • a company panel, where employers are interviewed, making comparisons possible between employees' responses and those of their employer.

The survey on working conditions is carried out every seven years. The people interviewed in the 2005 survey were interviewed again for this one to accurately plot changes. The sample size increased from 18,000 to 27,000.

Main findings

Pace of work

The share of employees whose work rate is determined simultaneously by three or more constraints has increased from 6% in 1984 to 35% in 2013. Today, nearly one-third of employees face external demands such as pressure to provide prompt responses or having work determined by the automatic movement of a production line. These pressures have increased for all occupational groups, although the rise is more pronounced for tertiary workers and skilled craftsmen. The share of employees whose work pace is monitored by a computer is also rising in all occupational groups, up from 25% in 2005 to 35% in 2013. Managers and social workers are most affected by this trend. Furthermore, employees claim they are now more likely to have to interrupt tasks in order to do another job, and to have to change their job depending on the needs of their organisation.

The report also showed that people who suffer from poor working conditions were the ones most likely to report organisational constraints and deadlines. Between 2005 and 2013, ‘mechanical’ constraints such as production line work, or having to match one’s work rate to the automatic movement of a product, as supermarket cashiers do, have increased and this has had a huge effect on jobs. Employees complained more about physical stress and exposure to physical risks in 2013 than they did in 2005, with 33% of employees claiming to be exposed to potential infection from dangerous substances in 2013, significantly more than in the 2005 survey (28%). A third of craftsmen declared that road accidents were a risk while at work, an increase of three percentage points since 2005.

However, between 2005 and 2013, the sense of urgency has slightly decreased, and the share of employees who say that they ‘always or often’ have to hurry at work dropped from 52% in 1998 to 46% in 2013.

Job insecurity

The share of employees who are afraid of losing their jobs has also risen, from 11% in 2005 to 17% in 2013. This uncertainty, linked with the instability of employment and changes in the working environment is associated with greater work intensity. Consequently, 61% of part-time workers and 46% of employees say the pace of their work is affected by at least three constraints:

  • the automatic speed of a machine;
  • tensions between co-workers;
  • daily quotas.

Part-time workers who are worried about losing their jobs have more constraints on the pace of their work compared with employees who are not so concerned. Similarly, tensions between colleagues are more frequent when employees fear losing their jobs, and when their work environment has changed during the last 12 months. The share of workers who are exposed to at least three pace constraints has increased more significantly in the public sector, from 21% to 29%, than in the private sector (from 34% to 37%).

This increase is predominantly driven by public and private hospital workers whose work pace is increasingly monitored by computer: 39% of those surveyed in public hospitals reported work intensification in 2013 against 20% in 2005.

In 2013, almost half of all public servants claim they work in a pressurised way with a strong sense of urgency (47%), a figure now identical to that of other employees.

Nearly two-thirds of all employees and more than three-quarters of hospital workers reported fragmented work in 2013, frequently having to interrupt one task to do another. Switching roles to suit employer’s needs is also becoming more common in both public services and the private sector.

Working hours

The number of employees who do not have 48 hours of rest per week has not altered much since 1984 when the survey was first carried out and neither has the number of workers who are subject to monitoring, or those who have to work at night or on Sundays or Saturdays. However, trade and service employees were somewhat more likely to work on Sundays in 2013 (47%) than in 2005 (42%). The most notable change is the improvement in employees’ contingency plans: in the 1998 survey, 41% of workers found it impossible to arrange with colleagues to change their schedules; in 2013 this figure had dropped to 31%.

Cooperation and conflict

Cooperation between employees has increased, with 79% of employees surveyed in 2013 saying they were helped by their colleagues if they had ‘trouble accomplishing complicated tasks’, against 74% in 2005. Assistance from managers is also more common. Similarly, 79% of employees had the opportunity to address work issues collectively, compared with 72% in 2005. Employees who feel supported and have opportunities for cooperation are less likely to express concern about having to work under pressure. However, more and more employees experience tension because of conflict with colleagues, or because they don’t have enough help to execute a task properly, particularly in sectors where employment is precarious. Finally, while the proportion of employees in contact with the public is relatively stable, the emotional intensity of work has increased, with 53% of such workers saying they have had to 'calm people’, and 44% having been in contact with 'people in distress’ (against 47% and 38% in 2005 respectively).

Computers at work

In 2013, 71% of employees used computers at work, compared with 60% in 2005 and 51% in 1998. While over 90% of executives, middle managers or administrative employees use computers, their use has particularly increased among trade and service employees. Women use computers more often in their work than men; 54% say they use the internet at work compared with 48% of men.

Flexibility

Between 2005 and 2013, flexibility at work has declined significantly in terms of the ability to operate freely. This is said to be due to financial, operational and timing restrictions and this is true for all occupational groups except unskilled workers. However, in 2013, 76.9% of employees reported that their job allowed them to learn new things, against 75.6% in 2005.

Commentary

This study highlights disimprovements in some aspects of working conditions over the last seven years and this worryingly reflects the general feeling of workers. The study also highlights a growing trend of work pace constraints in the public sector, showing that it too is not immune to the intensification of work.

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