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The climate of fear in Britain’s public sector—and how to change it

Brendan Martin, 20 May 2013

Britain’s employees are feeling more insecure and pressured at work than at any time in the past 20 years, a major workforce survey published today reveals.

But -- and it's a big but -- they are more content and less anxious about job or status loss “where employers adopted policies that gave employees a degree of involvement in decision-making at work”.

Those are the headline findings of the 2012 Skills and Employment Survey (SES), based on face-to-face interviews with 3,000 workers aged 20 to 60.

The survey also showed that, for the first time since it was first undertaken 20 years ago, public sector workers no longer feel more secure than those in the private sector.

The findings come the week after Public World's roundtable on Staff Involvement to Improve the NHS, held in Westminster with the participation of NHS Employers, revealed strong anecdotal evidence supporting the same conclusions.

Our roundtable brought together leading NHS managers with professional body and trade union representatives and other health care policy and practice specialists, who shared their insights about the benefits of staff involvement and the obstacles to increasing it in the NHS today.

The participants also heard from Lars-Åke Almqvist, of our Swedish partner Alamanco, whose Best Workplace staff involvement methodology Public World is now offering in Britain. (For details, please write to admin@publicworld.org).

The latest SES survey is the first since 2006. Fear at Work, one of three reports published today, says: “The major change that occurred between 2006 and 2012 was that for the first time public sector employees were quite clearly more concerned about losing their employment than those in the private sector.”

People in workplaces that had downsized or reorganised are the most likely to feel these concerns, and the findings also reveal that:

  • More than half of employees (51%) were concerned about job status -- and loss of voice at work was second only to pay reduction as a reason for their fear.
  • Having been rife in the 1990s, work intensification has increased again, with pressures to work faster and to tighter deadlines at record highs.
  • Job stress has gone up and job-related well-being down.

The research was led by academics at London's Institute of Educaction (IOE) and Cardiff University. Francis Green, IOE's professor of Work and Education Economics, commented:

“Since the start of the recession, the growth of fear not only of employment loss but of unfair treatment and loss of status was particularly strong in the public sector. Attention should be paid to the deteriorating climate of employee relations in this area.”

Cardiff professor Alan Felstead added: “The slowness with which employers in Britain are enhancing employee participation is becoming an issue of considerable concern. In general, better job control entails increased employee involvement and participation."

Following last week's Roundtable, Public World is offering a range of services to help public sector employers in Britain to improve staff involvement, including the Best Workplace methodology. Watch this space, or get in touch at admin@publicworld.org.

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