Harvard Med School Survey Finds Stressed-Out U.S. Workforce

(CN) — U.S. workplaces are grueling, unforgiving and inflexible, leaving many workers physically and emotionally drained, according to a study from Harvard Medical School, UCLA and the RAND Corporation.

The American Working Conditions Survey polled 3,066 adults to study their work experiences by gender, age, education level and type of work. The research aims to provide details about workers and job characteristics.

More than 25 percent of respondents said they do not have enough time to do their job, a particularly common response among white-collar workers. About half reported that they do some work in their free time to meet workplace expectations.

Nearly 75 percent of workers reported intense or repetitive physical demands on the job at least a quarter time of the time. Workers without a college degree reported greater physical demands, though college-educated and older employees are also affected.

“I was surprised how taxing the workplace appears to be, both for less-educated and for more-educated workers,” said lead author Nicole Maestas, an adjunct economist at RAND and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “Work is taxing at the office and it’s taxing when it spills out of the workplace into people’s family lives.”

Though about eight in 10 participants say they have steady work throughout the year, only 54 percent reported working the same number of hours on a daily basis. One in three workers said they do not have control over their schedule. While telecommuting is growing, 78 percent of participants had to be at their workplace during standard business hours.

More than 50 percent reported exposure to unpleasant and potentially dangerous conditions.

A “disturbingly high” number of respondents— almost one in five — said they work in a hostile or threatening social environment. Younger women are the most likely to experience unwanted sexual attention, while younger men are most likely to face verbal abuse.

Though many workers adjust their personal lives to accommodate work matters, sometimes it’s just not possible. About 33 percent of workers said they cannot change their work schedule for personal or family reasons, a problem that is more common for women.

The survey showed that workplace preferences change as workers grow older. For example, older workers are more likely to value the ability to set the pace of their work and control how they do it. They are also generally less likely to report some degree of inconsistency between their ideal and actual working conditions. Almost two-thirds of workers report some level of such a mismatch.

Almost 50 percent of workers report working more hours than they prefer each week, while about 20 percent say they work fewer.

The survey also shows that retirement is a fluid concept. Many older workers report that they have retired and then rejoined the workforce. Many people 50 and older who are not employed say they would think about going back to work if the conditions were right.

Despite these issues, U.S. workers have a certain level of autonomy, and most feel confident about their ability to complete assigned tasks. More than half of the participants describe their boss as supportive and say they have good friends at work.

The survey is designed to be comparable with the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), which has been conducted periodically for 25 years. The EWCS polls workers from a wide range of European nations.

Researchers say there is fairly limited publicly available information about U.S. jobs today. The team plans to analyze how working conditions in the United States compare to those in Europe and other parts of the world, and to do follow-up surveys using the same respondents. Data tables from the survey are available to other researchers to allow secondary use of the results.

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