Public sector workers the most stressed

2003

Levels of satisfaction, trust and commitment are all lower in the public than in the private sector and public sector workers are increasingly stressed and dissatisfied with their work. So says the latest annual survey of employee attitudes by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

As many as 38 per cent of NHS workers and 30 per cent of local government workers find their work very stressful with nurses, doctors and teachers among those most likely to suffer stress.

Employees say that the main causes of stress are high workload and long hours, which have contributed to the long-term decline in satisfaction in satisfaction among public sector workers.

The CIPD survey is the latest of a number of reports suggesting that front-line public sector workers continue to suffer high levels of work-related stress. A Bristol University study (Smith 2001) found high stress among those on higher salaries and among teachers and nurses. The BMA Health Policy and Economic Research Unit report in 2000 found "that many senior doctors suffer high levels of stress as a result of their work." According to the BMA, workload is biggest source of work-related stress. The Policy Studies Institute (PSI) June 2001, Neurolink (April 2001) and Teacherline (May 2000) have produced similar findings for senior nurses, doctors and teachers respectively.

Despite this, the CIPD found that public sector workers remain motivated, committed and loyal to their role and their organisation.

Mike Emmott, CIPD Adviser in Employee Relations says, "The findings underline the huge task facing the Government as it attempts to reform and improve public services. Public sector workers are experiencing higher levels of organisational change than the private sector and this presents a further challenge for managers. The NHS uses relatively few HR practices. National and local governments need to pay more attention to the way in which people management policies are implemented.

“This is likely to put a significant strain on line managers who may not have the resources or support to deal with such change."

The CIPD survey, Pressure at Work and the Psychological Contract shows the psychological contract (the mutual expectations of employer and employees) to be worse in the public than in the private sector. Levels of satisfaction, trust and commitment are all lower in the public sector. For example, only seven per cent of people in central government believe strongly that "the organisation cares about my opinions"; while two out of five feel fairly treated by their managers and supervisors compared with more than half in other sectors.

This negative picture of the state of morale in the public sector reinforces that in a September 2002 Audit Commission report.

Meanwhile, trust among workers in senior management is not particularly high across all sectors: only one in three people trust senior management "a lot" to look after their best interests.

The CIPD survey provides a consistent baseline against which UK organisations can benchmark their own employee relations and explore trends in employee attitudes to work, and relationships with managers and colleagues.

Mike Emmott, CIPD Adviser on Employee Relations says: "The general picture is that employee attitudes are fairly stable. The relationship between managers and the people they manage is critical to organisational performance. Organisations need to devote more attention to earning and maintaining the confidence of their people.

Although concerns about insecurity and dissatisfaction are often exaggerated, there are clear indications that trust levels need to be lifted and employee commitment is under pressure from long hours and work intensity."

Key findings

  • 38 per cent of NHS workers and 30 per cent of local government workers find their work either stressful or very stressful against an average of 25% for all workers.
  • 42 per cent of employees are at least fairly confident about finding a new job if they get made redundant, while 72% say that it is unlikely that they will quit their job this year.
  • Over 75 per cent of the workforce favour workplace legislation to introduce work councils, limit working hours or make the retirement age more flexible.
  • 84 per cent are proud to say who they work for while 85% say that they are fairly motivated in their current job. Over half report loyalty to their organisation, with only 17% reporting no loyalty.
  • Only one in three people trust senior management "a lot" to look after their best interests.
  • Nearly 50 per cent of central Government workers say that "what happens at work isn't really important, it's just my job" – 3 times the percentage in the NHS.