Increase in work demands and exposure to loud noise

The results of the Danish Work Environment Cohort Study 2005 (DWECS), published in December 2006, reveal significant increases in demands at work and in exposure to loud noise at the workplace. On the other hand, DWECS also shows significant improvements in employees’ work–life balance and in social support from superiors. Moreover, employees had a more positive outlook on future job prospects in 2005 than in 2000. These conflicting results have caused some debate among the social partners.

In December 2006, the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (Nationale Forskningscenter for Arbejdsmiljø, NRCWE) published the first results of the fourth edition of the national working conditions survey – the Danish Work Environment Cohort Study (DWECS) (in Danish) – covering the five-year period 2000–2005. The main findings of the study are presented in the Danish survey data report DK0701019D.

Subsequent to the publication of DWECS 2005, the social partners have presented their views on the survey results.

DWECS 2005 results

In relation to the psychosocial work environment, the DWECS 2005 results show developments in opposite directions, and indicate no clear line of development from 2000 to 2005 towards overall better or worse conditions for workers. While DWECS 2005 identified improvements for some occupational factors, it also revealed a deterioration of conditions in the case of other factors.

On the positive side, the work–life balance of Danish employees improved from 2000 to 2005. Moreover, more workers perceived future prospects in the job as being better, and reported a significant increase in social support from their immediate superiors.

Despite these results, however, demands at work have generally increased: more workers faced a high workload, a high pace of work and increased emotional demands in the period 2000–2005. Higher emotional demands may be explained by the fact that relatively more individuals were employed in jobs involving contact with clients or customers in 2005 than in 2000.

In addition, exposure to loud noise has increased significantly in Danish workplaces. Apart from the categories of workers traditionally reporting noise exposure, for example in manufacturing and construction, even primary and lower secondary school teachers, personnel at childcare institutions, as well as waiters report exposure to loud noise.

Figure 1: Work environment development trends 2000–2005, selected factors from DWECS 2005 (%)

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Notes: Only statistically significant developments are shown.

Source: DWECS 2005

Views of social partners

Commenting on the DWECS 2005 results, the Confederation of Danish Employers (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) considers that the findings document an overall positive development in the psychosocial work environment as work–life balance has improved, and employees experience more social support from superiors and perceive better future prospects in the job. According to DA, the survey results conclude that employers fulfil their responsibility in preventing psychosocial work environment problems. In addition, DA highlights that the increased exposure to loud noise reveals that the Work Environment Council (Arbejdsmiljørådet) and the Ministry of Employment (Beskæftigelsesministeriet) were right in prioritising noise as one of four target areas for the work environment policy.

Conversely, the Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants in Denmark (Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF) claims that the work environment has deteriorated overall in the period 2000–2005. In its conclusion, the FTF draws attention to the increasing work demands identified by DWECS 2005, mentioning in particular the heightened pace of work, increased emotional demands and the increased workload levels of employees. According to FTF, increased demands at work reflect the focus of employers on improving work efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Commentary

Overall, demands at work have increased significantly more than the improvements in the psychosocial work environment identified by DWECS 2005. According to the occupational stress research inspired by Robert Karasek, this may present a problem as improvements which are not proportional to the increases in demands may in some instances result in higher stress levels among workers. For instance, imbalances between demands at work and the resources available to meet such demands – for example, social support, development opportunities and job control – may lead to stress and related negative health outcomes. It should be noted, however, that it is not known exactly how much demands have to increase to create such an imbalance, and to set off negative health outcomes.

Further information

For further information on the Danish Work Environment Cohort Study (DWECS), see data survey reports for Denmark on DWECS 2005 (DK0701019D) and on DWECS 2000 (DK0312SR01). Additional information on DWECS 2000 is available in the Foundation report Working conditions surveys – A comparative analysis.

Rune Holm Christiansen and Helle Ourø Nielsen, Oxford Research

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