Work pressure increases during recession

A study has looked at the effect of the economic downturn on the pressure employees in Ireland feel at work. An analysis has been made of the findings of the National Workplace Survey of 2003, when the country was experiencing an economic boom. The results were compared with findings from 2009 when the recession had begun to bite. The authors say recession-related factors such as job insecurity, staff cuts and reorganisation, led to a significant increase in pressure at work.


New research in Ireland shows there was a significant increase in work pressure between the country’s economic boom and the beginning of the recession. The authors of Under pressure: The impact of recession on employees in Ireland looked at how workers had been affected during the period from 2003 when the economy was thriving, and 2009, when the downturn began to bite.

The authors of the report, Helen Russell and Frances McGinnity, analysed data from the National Workplace Surveys as they relate to work pressure. They concluded that job insecurity in the recession, staff cuts and reorganisation are linked to higher work pressure.

They also found that large pay cuts increased work pressure but smaller pay cuts did not.

The authors analysed the employee surveys carried out in 2003 and again in 2009 (IE1012039D). They used the information to look at the experience of employees regarding workplace pressure. For the purposes of the study, workplace pressure was defined as ‘the experience of pressure on the job’. The authors made a distinction between workplace pressure and work intensity, which is typically measured as ‘the frequency of working at high speed and of working to tight deadlines’.

Increase in workplace pressure

To what extent employees agreed with a number of statements was examined as indications of workplace pressure. Employees were asked to what extent they agreed with the statements:

  • my job requires that I work very hard;
  • my job requires that I work under a great deal of pressure;
  • I do not have enough time to do everything;
  • I often have to work extra time.

It was found that all of these indicators of work pressure had increased over the period 2003 to 2009. The researchers combined the four indicators into a summary scale that went from -2 to +2. The mean score was 0.15 in 2003 and 0.29 in 2009. They concluded that this was ‘evidence of a clear increase in work pressure’.

Workplace change

Variables measuring organisational and work change were also examined as part of the research. Job change variables were the level of responsibility, pressure, job security, pay rate and decision-making.

The organisational change elements analysed included a change in ownership, reorganisation, a new chief executive officer (CEO) and a reduction in staff numbers.

Looking at job change, it was found that in the 2009 survey, more than 60% of workers reported increased responsibilities, compared to less than 40% in 2003. Over half of employees (54%) experienced an increase in work pressure in 2009, compared to 34% in 2003. In 2009, a third of workers (34%) said that their job security had decreased in the previous years, compared to a small percentage of just 4% in 2003.

When it came to organisational change, in the 2009 survey 56% of employees in both the public and private sectors reported a reduction in staff numbers. Employees also experienced an increase in company/organisational reorganisation.


The survey modelled the results to take into account certain personal and job characteristics. The authors found women experienced higher work pressure, and those on temporary contracts reported lower work pressure.

Employees who worked longer hours experienced higher work pressure. Pressure was also found to be higher among earners in highly skilled jobs. In addition, the authors found:

...largely public sectors health and education, and to a lesser extent public administration, have higher pressure scores than manufacturing. Hotels and restaurants and other (market) services also have somewhat higher pressure scores.

Recession factors

The authors analysed the impact of what they term ‘recession effects’, such as organisational change, pay cuts and job security, on work pressure. When examining cuts in pay, the authors say:

...the model indicates that employees reporting that their hourly pay had decreased a lot report higher work pressure, suggesting that large pay reductions may increase financial strain and overall stress. There is no effect on pressure for those whose pay had dropped a little.

The results show ‘employees in organisations which have experienced staff cuts experience higher pressure, as do employees whose company has recently been reorganised’.

Increased job responsibility was found to be strongly associated with increased work pressure. In addition, employees who were very insecure in their current job experienced higher work pressure than those who felt secure. However, it was found that having a new CEO did not increase the work pressure of employees.

Roisin Farrelly, IRN Publishing

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