EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Impact of new management practices on working conditions

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The results of the 2008–2009 works council survey, carried out by the Institute of Economic and Social Research within the Hans Böckler Foundation, highlight the effects of various management practices on work strains in German companies. The survey findings provide a new insight into health risk management at establishment level, also highlighting that only a minority of companies are carrying out health risk assessments, albeit being prescribed by law.

About the survey

Up until now, the effects of management practices on working conditions have rarely been examined. Within the framework of its 2008–2009 works council survey (in German), the Institute of Economic and Social Research (Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut, WSI) – part of the Hans Böckler Foundation (Hans Böckler Stiftung) – investigated this issue. The works council survey forms part of a research project on participative management of workplace health promotion (Partizipatives Gesundheitsmanagement, Pargema), which was carried out by a network of German research institutes over the period 2006–2009.

The telephone-based survey covered 1,700 works council members in a representative sample of establishments employing more than 20 employees and in all sectors of the economy in Germany. This article outlines some of the research findings as published on the Pargema website (Ahlers, E., ‘WSI-Betriebsrätebefragung 2008/2009 zu Innovationsfähigkeit, Arbeitsbedingungen und Gesundheit im Betrieb’, Informationsblatt (40Kb PDF), 2009), while the results of the multivariate analysis are published in the 2010 annual report on ‘Good work’ (Gute Arbeit – Ausgabe 2010).

Survey findings

Innovative, efficiency-oriented management practices are widespread

The survey findings show that a significant number of companies apply new management practices; more specifically, of all companies surveyed:

  • 63% implement extensive controlling measures;
  • 60% manage their workforce according to key production ratios in order to set objectives;
  • 53% manage their staff according to individual performance plans which mostly set out economic targets and/or customer satisfaction goals:
    • in 39% of these companies, the entire staff is managed through such performance plans,
    • in 32%, these performance plans are unilaterally determined by management;
  • 51% carry out project work;
  • 46% benchmark the results of individual departments or teams;
  • 16% manage their units like profit centres – that is, benchmarking their profitability within the company.

Time and efficiency pressure depends on management practices

Some 70% of the works council respondents stated that mental stress had increased over the past three years, while 26% of these respondents also reported an increase in physical stress. According to 37% of the respondents, some employees work more than nine hours a day.

In 84% of all companies surveyed, a substantial proportion of employees, corresponding to 43% on average, work under considerable time or efficiency pressure. Most of these employees are skilled white-collar workers. Works councils most often indicated the following reasons for this pressure: staff shortages (84%), personal responsibility and accountability (79%), dependence on customer demands (75%) or management behaviour (63%).

Table 1: Share of companies where employees are strongly or very strongly affected by certain work strains (%)
Type of work strain Establishments
Time pressure 67
Personal responsibility and accountability for work 60
Pressure due to high job task responsibility 50
High workload 47
Fear of job loss 34
Difficult management behaviour 29
Disturbing disruptions at work 27
Difficulties to plan working time 27
Poor work environment 17
Monotonous work 12

Source: Ahlers, E., 2009

On average, works councils of companies that apply efficiency-oriented management practices report a higher level of each time pressure and workload than the total of all works councils.

Table 2: Distribution of work strain in establishments applying efficiency-oriented management practices (%)
Management Time pressure High workload Difficulties to plan working time
Profit centres 75 60 34
Project work 72 53 30
Benchmarking 71 54 33
Extensive controlling 70 52 29
Management by unilaterally determined targets 79 57 37
Total 59 42 26

Source: Ahlers, E., ‘Arbeit und Gesundheit heute – Zentrale Ergebnisse der WSI/PARGEMA Betriebsrätebefragung 2008/2009 zu Arbeitsbedingungen und Gesundheit im Betrieb’ (242Kb PDF), 2009

Health risk management insufficient

In general, both time and efficiency pressure negatively affect workers’ health protection. Overall, 34% of works councils report that employees tend to neglect workplace health and safety regulations, such as taking breaks. Some 22% of works councils indicated that, in order to cope with their workload, employees do not stay at home when ill.

Health risk assessments, albeit statutory, are carried out by 46% of all companies surveyed, and only 29% of these acknowledge psychological stress as a health risk. Companies that proceeded with a health risk assessment indicated different reasons for doing so: in 46% of the cases, a consultancy provided the impetus for carrying out such an assessment; in 38% of the cases, high workload was the reason for such an assessment; and in 24% of the cases, a restructuring process preceded the risk assessment initiative.

On the other hand, the works councils of establishments that do not carry out a health risk assessment (54%) indicated that management and/or the works council do not know how to carry out such a risk assessment (69%) or do not know this type of instrument at all (34%). In these cases, workers’ health is considered to represent a minor problem (64%), or is said to be too costly (40%) or too demanding for the company (40%). Some 32% of the works councils surveyed claim that they are too busy to consider carrying out a health risk assessment at the workplace.

Birgit Kraemer, Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI)

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