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From: The Socialist issue 360, 4 September 2004: End The Occupation Of Iraq

Search site for keywords: Health - Stress - Pay - Environment - Civil Service

Stress At Work - The Facts

WHILST THE government is content to sit back and watch the right-wing media peddle lies about civil servants, it is well aware of what life is really like for the vast majority of its workforce.

Bernie Lyons

The PCS civil service union has recently published the Whitehall II study which sheds light on the findings of extensive research into the health of over 14,000 civil servants.

University College London (UCL) is carrying out the study, which was begun in 1985 and was asked jointly by the Cabinet Office and the Council of Civil Service Unions to produce a plain English version of the findings to date.

The study quashes the myth that those in the most senior positions in the workplace are more likely to suffer from stress and other illnesses.

Though there was shown to be a strong relationship between health and employment status, it is those in the lower grades of employment who are at far more risk of both physical and mental illness. The more senior you are in the employment hierarchy, the longer you are likely to live.

Little control

In particular danger are workers who face high demands but have little control over their work, regardless of the 'type' of person they are. The study highlights employer and manager support as one way to reduce sickness absence.

Working hard was not considered to be stressful in itself. But high levels of stress were found in those who were not appropriately rewarded through esteem, financial remuneration and career opportunities such as job security and promotion prospects. It showed that those who believe they are subject to unjust procedures and unfair treatment are also more likely to become ill.

Organisational change was highlighted as an area which poses particular risks for the workers involved. It is suggested that change often provides only limited business benefits, at a cost of reducing loyalty, motivation and morale in the workplace. Job insecurity was found to affect workers even after the threat to their job had disappeared. Increased levels of sickness were related to frequent changes, including reorganisation, privatisation and threat of redundancy. Temporary employment too was found to be associated with an increase in premature death.

UCL says that: "Reduction of health inequalities is the current priority for government". However, the reality for civil servants is one of massive job cuts and government attacks on the working conditions of the lowest paid.

This is most obvious in the Department for Work and Pensions, where Chancellor Gordon Brown has promised that 30,000 staff will soon lose their jobs. The government has also introduced a performance pay scheme which discriminates against the most disadvantaged and those on the lowest pay.

Working environment

Of course, the implications of the study extend to other workplaces and to society as a whole. It concludes that patterns of behaviour are conditioned by the environment in which people live and work.

It shows evidence that health is strongly influenced by the work environment, social influences outside work and influences from early life. As it acknowledges, this: "Leads to the uncomfortable (for some) finding that inequalities in health cannot be divorced from inequalities in society."

Of course, the most significant disadvantage for those at low grades is low income. Those on low pay have far less control over things like the place where they live, the food they and their families eat and the types of leisure and social activities in which they can take part.

In other words, low-paid workers experience stress both at work and as result of it. The effects of the conditions experienced during the working life, were also found to continue into retirement. Those who are better off typically report a more satisfying retirement period, with a better standard of health.

PCS is aware of what the findings of this research means for its members and is calling on the government to ensure that illness and work-related stress in particular is avoided in the first place, rather than attempting to solve the problem after it has arisen. Members of other trade unions should put pressure on their leaders to do the same and make it plain to employers that they will not be allowed to damage and disregard the health of those who do the work for them.

Less Hours, Higher Productivity

A RECENT survey by Deloitte has found that France and Germany, where workers have the shortest working week in Europe, are the most productive economies in Europe.

The growth of productivity in Britain has been slower, now below the EU average.

Productivity is a measure of the output per worker. And output is obviously dependent on the amount of investment in plant and machinery the bosses are prepared to make.

The bosses argue that workers should work longer hours for less money to protect profits.

We argue that working hours are not the problem, it's the profit system.

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