The truth about employees’ experience of their work

30 January 2013 Many workers are stressed-out, working long hours, and are employed by managers who do not feel responsible for providing a good work-life balance for their staff.

Commentary icon30 Jan 2013|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

30 January 2013

Many workers are stressed-out, working long hours, and are employed by managers who do not feel responsible for providing a good work-life balance for their staff.

Last week, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills released a statement declaring that “employee satisfaction and commitment to their place of work has significantly increased despite the economic downturn”. These claims were taken from an interpretation of a newly published report – The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS). However, the government’s summary of the survey’s findings conveniently misses out some far more concerning trends among the UK workforce.

The study of 21,000 employees, 1,000 worker representatives and 2,700 – which was conducted between March 2011 and June 2012 – compares its findings with those that were reported in 2004, when a similar investigation was run. Some of the major issues that were problematic in 2011/12 included longer hours of work, greater workplace stress and the continuation of regressive views when it comes to workplace flexibility.

Working Longer Hours

The figures showed that 29% of employees had been forced to cope with an increase in their workload due to the effects of the recession. For many, this has occurred as redundancies were made, overtime cut down and recruitment frozen, leaving existing workers to pick up the slack.

Furthermore, many have opted out of the EU Working Time Directive, which caps weekly working hours at 48 averaged over a 17-week period. The study found that at least one member of staff had opted-out of this agreement in order to work longer hours at a third of British workplaces, while all managers had opted-out in 21% of workplaces, and a massive 15% of workplaces were staffed entirely by people who had opted-out of the Directive.

Altogether, 12% of all employees surveyed were working in an environment in which all workers had opted out. In those workplaces where all employees had opted-out of the agreement, the average working week was 43 hours long and a fifth of all workers normally spent more than 48 hours on the job. Opt-out agreements were most common among non-financial professionals such as lawyers (where 42% had signed such contracts), while 34% of private sector companies had at least one worker who had opted out, compared with 15% of public sector organisations.

Workplace Stress

As many as 41% of all British workers said they ‘Strongly Agreed’ with the statement that “People in this workplace who want to progress usually have to put in long hours”, and the results of the survey showed professionals and managers were the employees most likely to believe this, as well as those who work in medium-to-large private sector companies.

Unsurprisingly, considering the pressure on so many workers of their perception that they must work around the clock to achieve career success, a large proportion of workers said they felt ‘tense’, ‘worried’ or ‘uneasy’ about their jobs ‘all’, ‘most’ or ‘some’ of the time.

Even among employees who worked under 30 hours a week, 42% said their jobs made them feel tense. This proportion increased with the time workers spent at their jobs to 53% among those working 30-39 hours a week, 62% of those working 40-48 hours per week and a whopping 69% among those who had opted out of the Working Time Directive and agreed to work 48 hours or more each week.

This clearly shows how the Working Time Directive can help to cut stress in the workplace and improve the wellbeing of workers. The health and welfare of employees should be the primary concern of both employers, and this government, which makes David Cameron’s recent speech on renegotiating such agreements with the EU all the more concerning.

The continuation of regressive views around flexible working

Unfortunately, it seems employers are neither prioritising their workers’ welfare nor recognising the pro-business benefits of providing flexible hours for employees.

The report showed that there was no increase in the provision of flexible working practices by employers between 2004 and 2011 and, in fact, the proportion of employers who consider their staff’s work-life balance to be none of their concern has risen, with 76% agreeing with the statement ‘It is up to individual employees to balance work and family responsibilities’ in 2011 compared with 66% in 2004. Managers with this perception now share a workplace with 71% of all employees, rather than 56% in 2004, and are more common in the private sector than the public sector.

More than a quarter of all employees – 27% – said they find it difficult to fulfil their out-of-work commitments because of the amount of time they spend on their job.

Are the government concerned about these trends? It is difficult to say when the press release related to the publishing of the report spoke about its positive findings alone, although it’s easy to spot a few patterns within the historical decisions of the Conservative Party to guess at least a proportion of Tories will may not bat an eyelid at these poor results.

Flexible working regulations and the Working Time Directive are policies put into effect due to pressure from the EU. Were we not tied into our current EU agreement, employers might be getting away with working their staff at all hours and providing little to no time for them to take care of family responsibilities, all the while ignoring their levels of workplace stress. After all, the Tory party was reluctant to put the Working time Directive in place, as well as flexible parenting leave.

While EU membership and whether or not Britain’s workforce benefits from it is a very complex issue, it is clear that one gain UK employees make from being within the EU is on their employment rights. The TUC released this stark diagram showing exactly what workers could lose if the Working Time Directive was lost.

Sarah Glenister

Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.