A climate of fear: employees face greater stress and job insecurity while working harder

The abbreviation UKCES doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue in the same way as, for example, CWU, or TUC.  But the contribution that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills is making to industrial relations is nevertheless very important.


But I would be surprised if many readers had ever heard of UKCES or was aware of the really impressive research work that has been undertaken by them.


The Commission itself contains representatives from business, education and the trade unions.  It was set up in 2008 and has survived the twin challenges of public expenditure cuts and deep antipathy to organised labour in some sections of government.


It works closely with other organisations with mysterious acronyms such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies  (LLAKES).


So in short, the research commissioned by UKCES and its partners is really top notch.  There can be no doubt about its quality or the integrity of the research methods, statistical analysis or the eminent academics who have been involved in writing the final reports.


And what reports they are.  In 2012, UKCES surveyed 3,200 working peopled aged between 20 and 65.  They made sure the sample size was balanced in terms of gender, what people were doing, age and residency.  The interviews were conducted face-to-face by experienced and skilled researchers.


And crucially, the 2012 survey built on the results of previous surveys in 2006, 2001, 1997, 1992 and 1986.  In other words we can go back over 25 years to see how things have changed in key areas in the workplace.


Six papers were produced dealing with various aspects of the research findings: the title of the papers themselves gives you an inkling of what those results might be.


  • Skills at work
  • Training
  • Job Control
  • Fear at work
  • Work intensification
  • Job-related well-being


The papers were presented at two linked seminars in London.  There were close to 200 people in the audience at each event and the attendance list read like a who’s who of industrial relations practice and research.  In other words, this stuff matters.  And in the words of Professor Duncan Gallie who lead much of the research, it matters because it is centred on data from those who know most about these issues -  the workers themselves.


The research confirmed feelings that most of us have had for some time.  On one level involvement in decision making seems to have improved.  There has been more formal consultation, but this finding is not reflected in questions about job control – or in questions about fear at work.  Those interviewed feel that they have less control and more frightened of arbitrary and unfair treatment.  The trend over the last 25 years is absolutely clear on this.


This to me is the stand out feature of the results of the survey.  There are, of course, other conclusions and these are summarised very helpfully on the front page of each of the download-for-free research papers.


Because without wanting to jump on the table and shout “we told you so”, it is clear that you cannot pay lip service to consultation and expect it to have no impact. 


As the researchers themselves have acknowledged: Even though there maybe formal consultation, if people feel they have less control over their work, this can lead to “organisational dysfunctionality”. For “organisational dysfunctionality” read tension at the workplace, lower productivity and poorer economic performance.


When combined with the recession and constraints on public expenditure, it is no surprise that public sector workers now feel more vulnerable than those in the private sector – and it is no surprise either that now 51% of all those surveyed believe that it is likely they will suffer the consequence of an unfair decision affecting them at work.  Indeed 1 in 6 of those surveyed believe that there is a likely chance of them losing their job within the next year.


More people are now more concerned about victimisation than discrimination,  which  given the change in the makeup  of the workforce over the last 20 years is a striking shift.


For union negotiators and policy makers this is a very valuable resource.  It validates the concerns that we have and the arguments that we have been making over the last many years.  But for government – and opposition – politicians there is an even clearer message: the current strategy is not working, it is in fact making things worse – and there is no reasonable prospect of that improving.


Those who commissioned and carried the research should be rightly praised for their diligence and professionalism in making sure that we have the opportunity to develop policy on the basis of evidence.


All titles are downloadable free from  www.llakes.org – the 20 May 2013 news item on the front page  has all the links you need.


*This is the title LLAKES themselves gave to their news release when the  survey results were published.


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