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Trouble at work

26 July 2012

Trouble at work

Public sector workers are under attack from customers, colleagues and managers, according to a new book by researchers from the School of Social Sciences.

Trouble at Work shows that public sector workers are more likely to suffer ill-treatment, including violence, from the people they are meant to serve, but also from their colleagues and managers.

Public sector workers are in this beleaguered position because they are more likely than private sector workers to experience the full range of factors that lead to ill-treatment. For example, workers in public administration and defence, and in health and social work, are experiencing a toxic combination of change in the workplace, losing control over their jobs, work-intensification and a pace of work they cannot keep up with.

Other ingredients in the ill-treatment recipe are that public sector employees are more likely to have disabilities or long-term health problems, believe they compromise their principles at work, think their employer does not value them as individuals and that their employer always puts the needs of the organisation first.

All these ill-treatment ingredients are likely to become more plentiful as more pressure is put on costs and the public sector shrinks. This effect is clear for most of the factors that lead to ill-treatment, such as work-intensification and reduced leeway to take individuals into account. But the pressure to drive down the costs will risk increasing ill-treatment in less obvious ways, such as reducing sick leave and work adjustments for employees with disabilities or health problems. Further, the risks of bad treatment, including violence, from the public are likely to increase if they see the scope or quality of public service has been compromised.

One of the book's authors, Professor Ralph Fevre from School of Social Sciences, said: "The public sector has more than its fair share of ill-treatment but to explain this you need to look deeper into what makes working there different. It's not a simple case of attacks on workers in the blue-light services, or of public-sector workers having higher expectations of workplace behaviour. Nor is it necessarily a question of public sector managers being worse than those in the private sector.

"Our research shows that it is a highly complex situation in which a variety of factors come together to create multiple problems. There is one simple message at the end of this, however. Public sector workers may have more to lose from the shift of resources to the private sector than their pensions or even their jobs."

The book also analyses the regional risks of ill-treatment. Workers in Wales are the most likely to experience incivility and disrespect, including threats and intimidation. Along with workers in Yorkshire and Humberside, Welsh employees are also the most likely to experience unreasonable treatment. Problems include being denied the help they need to work at their best, having their opinions and views ignored, being subjected to unnecessary checking, unmanageable workloads and employers failing to follow proper procedures. The authors found that workers in London were the least likely to experience unreasonable treatment, incivility and disrespect, and also violence and injury.

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