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13 July 2015

A French survey reveals evidence of the intensification of work

Analysis of the data collected by the French working conditions survey 2013 is contained in a recently issued report. On the one hand, the various forms of constraint that contribute to work intensity have been increasing steadily over the last 30 years; on the other, for an increasing number of workers the experience of work intensity is generated by several constraints of differing kinds.

The constraints associated with machinery and production techniques that were previously a feature of industrial labour are now increasingly found also in services. For the employed workforce taken as a whole, the percentage of persons stating that their pace of work is determined by the automatic movements of a product or production component has risen between 1984 and 2013 from 2.1 to 5.4%. The number of manual workers affected by this phenomenon has risen more than threefold (from 6.5 to 21.7 %), while the number of white-collar workers in this situation has risen 15-fold from 0.3 to 4.4%. There has been a smaller rise, meanwhile, in the percentage of persons who state that their pace of work is determined by the automatically timed operation of machinery (from 3.4 to 5.3% of all employed workers). The percentage of persons stating that their pace of work is determined by other types of technical constraint has increased fourfold (from 2.8 to 11.1%). There is a particularly steep increase in this respect among employees in the retail trade (from 1.8 to 15.2%).

Dependence on colleagues is another factor of work intensity that shows a significant increase. The percentage of workers concerned here has risen from 11.2 to 29.6%.

Standardisation of work procedures increasingly leads to the imposition of compulsory schedules. The proportion of employed workers stating that their work pace is determined by norms or hourly performance requirements has risen fivefold (from 5.2 to 27.3%). The proportion of employed workers whose work pace is determined by an external requirement or demand necessitating an immediate response has doubled (from 28.3 to 58%).

The proportion of employed workers who state that their work pace is imposed by continuous supervision has almost doubled (from 17.4 to 31.5%). More than one worker in three is now affected by computerised monitoring of their performance as compared with one worker in four in 2005. This form of work pressure is a significant feature in all socio-occupational categories.

An increasing number of employed workers are also engaged in repetitive work, the percentage in this category having risen from 20.1% in 1984 to 41.2% in 2013. This is, furthermore, a constraint to which women are more exposed than men. The requirement to not take one’s eyes off one’s work now applies to four employed workers out of ten (39.1% in 2013 as compared with 15% in 1984).

The 2013 survey introduced some new questions designed to ascertain the consequences of work intensity. More than one employed worker in three states that s/he works frequently or always under pressure, while approximately half state that they frequently or always have to think of too many things at once. The encroachment of work on private life is another frequently experienced phenomenon: 43.6% of workers state that when not at work they continue to think about their work, and the percentage of women is, here once again, slightly higher than that of men. What is more, over 40% of employed workers (46.1% of women and 36.3% of men) state that in the course of the last twelve months they have, on at least one occasion, worked while sick.

This working conditions survey was conducted among a sample of some 34,000 persons. It is the sixth edition of a survey first introduced in 1978 and which thus provides a means of monitoring developments over time. The data on work intensification provide essential findings for the efforts to understand the increasing incidence of musculoskeletal disorders and of the phenomenon of psychosocial risks.

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