Psychosocial factors and work sustainability

A study on psychosocial working conditions among employees in the public and private sector was carried out in 2011 by FTF, a trade union representing professionals in Denmark. The results showed FTF members experienced higher job insecurity and higher emotional demands than the reference labour force. They also had a greater workload and increased pace of work. These factors had a major impact on workers’ well-being, health and the age when they expected to retire.


Around 15,000 members of the Confederation of White-Collar Workers and Crown Servants (FTF) responded to a questionnaire on psychosocial working conditions, a response rate of 65%. FTF members are mainly employed in the public and private sectors, and include police officers, care providers and construction managers.

The survey in 2011 was the fourth of its kind since 1995. The results are presented in the report Psychosocial working environment and health: study on FTF members’ psychosocial working environment 2012 (in Danish, 929Kb PDF).

Stress and absenteeism

Between 2006 and 2011, average annual sick leave increased from 7 to 7.7 days, of which 1.6 sick days could be fully or partly attributed to the psychosocial working environment. This corresponds to 21% of sick leave absences.

The survey found a clear correlation between perceived stress and absenteeism. Among people who felt particularly stressed, 30% had taken more than a month of sick leave in the past year. The corresponding share among those who did not experience stress was 4%.

Presenteeism (that is, employees going to work when illness meant they should have stayed home) increased slightly by 0.3 days a year between 2006 and 2011.

According to assessments by FTF, eliminating sick leave could have a big economic impact. An article (in Danish) on the FTF website says tackling the psychosocial environment could increase the labour supply by 15,000 full-time people every year.

Psychosocial factors

Statistical analysis shows that 11 factors measuring exposure to the psychosocial working environment are associated with one or more factors that reflect health, well-being and labour market status. The 11 factors are:

  • emotional demands;
  • having to hide emotions;
  • quantitative demands – high work load;
  • quantitative demands – high pace of work;
  • job insecurity;
  • the amount of meaningful work;
  • the ability to influence job tasks;
  • role clarity;
  • social support from colleagues;
  • social support from managers;
  • opportunities for development.

Job insecurity and emotional demands have the highest negative impact among FTF members on well-being and attachment to the labour market. Members, however, are generally more exposed to these factors than the reference labour force in Denmark.

Having a particularly high work load can also have a negative impact on a person’s health. Being overloaded with work is associated with burnout, poor psychological well-being, a poor self-assessed health status, stress and the likelihood of a person withdrawing from the labour market.

FTF members tend to experience higher quantitative demands than the reference labour force. However, the results are based on a cross-sectional study which gives some methodological implications in coming to a definitive conclusion on whether the associations found are due to factors other than the working environment.

Work sustainability

Respondents aged 50 and over were asked to say whether they expected to be able to continue working in their current job until the age of 65, the official retirement age in Denmark. The study found that 22% did not expect to continue working to 65, and that six of the 11 factors in the psychosocial working environment were associated with that assessment of their future working ability.

Respondents who experienced high emotional demands, high quantitative demands and high job insecurity were more likely to indicate that they did not believe they would be able to work to 65. Conversely, respondents who experienced great opportunities for development, a high degree of role clarity and social support from managers were more likely to believe that they would be able to work until the age of 65.

Simone Visbjerg Møller and Helle Ourø Nielsen, Oxford Research

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