August 14, 2017
The American workplace is physically and emotionally taxing, with workers frequently facing unstable work schedules, unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions, and an often hostile social environment, according to a new study that probes working conditions in the United States.
The findings stem from research conducted by investigators at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, Harvard Medical School and UCLA, and are from the American Working Conditions Survey -- one of the most in-depth surveys ever done to examine conditions in the American workplace.
More than one-in-four American workers say they have too little time to do their job, with the complaint being most common among white-collar workers. In addition, workers say the intensity of work frequently spills over into their personal lives, with about one-half of people reporting that they perform some work in their free time in order to meet workplace demands.
Despite these challenges, American workers appear to have a certain degree of autonomy on the job, most feel confident about their skill set and many do report that they receive social support while on the job.
“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 associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an adjunct economist at RAND. “Work is taxing at the office and it's taxing when it spills out of the workplace into people's family lives.”
Researchers say that while 8 in 10 American workers report having steady and predictable work throughout the year, just 54 percent report working the same number of hours on a day-to-day basis. One in three workers say they have no control over their schedule. Despite much public attention focused on the growth of telecommuting, 78 percent of workers report they must be present at their workplace during regular business hours.
Nearly three-fourths of American workers report either intense or repetitive physical exertion on the job at least a quarter of the time. While workers without a college education report greater physical demands, many college-educated and older workers are affected as well.
Strikingly, more than half of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions. Nearly one in five workers—a “disturbingly high” fraction—say they face a hostile or threatening social environment at work. Younger and prime-aged women are the workers most likely to experience unwanted sexual attention, while younger men are more likely to experience verbal abuse.
The findings are from a survey of 3,066 adults who participate in the RAND American Life Panel, a nationally representative, computer-based sample of people from across the United States. The workplace survey was fielded in 2015 to collect detailed information across a broad range of working conditions in the American workplace, as well as details about workers and job characteristics.
Despite the importance of the workplace to most Americans, researchers say there is relatively little publicly available information about the characteristics of American jobs today. The American Working Conditions survey is designed to be harmonious with the European Working Conditions Survey, which has been conducted periodically over the last 25 years among workers from a broad range of European nations.
The American Working Conditions Survey found that while many American workers adjust their personal lives to accommodate work matters, about one-third of workers say they are unable to adjust their work schedules to accommodate personal matters. In general, women are more likely than men to report difficulty arranging for time off during work hours to take care of personal or family matters.
Jobs interfere with family and social commitments outside of work, particuarly for younger workers who don't have a college degree. More than one in four reports a poor fit between their work hours and their social and family commitments.
The report also provides insights about how preferences change among workers as they become older.
Older workers are more likely to value the ability to control how they do their work and setting the pace of their work, as well as less physically demanding jobs. Older workers are also generally less likely than younger workers to have some degree of mismatch between their desired and actual working conditions.
The survey also confirms that retirement is often a fluid concept. Many older workers say they have previously retired before rejoining the workforce, and many people aged 50 and older who are not employed say they would consider rejoining the workforce if conditions were right.
Other highlights from the report include:
- The intensity of work such as pace, deadlines and time constraints differ across occupation groups, with white-collar workers experiencing greater work intensity than blue-collar workers.
- Jobs in the U.S. feature a mix of monotonous tasks and autonomous problem solving. While 62 percent of workers say they face monotonous tasks, more than 80 percent report that their jobs involve “solving unforeseen problems” and “applying own ideas.”
- The workplace is an important source of professional and social support, with more than one half of American workers describing their boss as supportive and that they have very good friends at work.
- Only 38 percent of workers say their job offers good prospects for advancement. All workers -- regardless of education -- become less optimistic about career advancement as they become older.
- Four out of five American workers report that their job provides “meaning” always or most of the time. Older college-educated men were those most likely to report at least one dimension of meaningful work.
- Nearly two-thirds of workers experience some degree of mismatch between their desired and actual working conditions, with the number rising to nearly three-quarters when job benefits are taken into account. Nearly half of workers report working more than their preferred number of hours per week, while some 20 percent report working fewer than their preferred number of hours.
Future reports will explore how conditions of the American workplace compare to those in Europe and in other parts of the world and selected findings from follow-up surveys using the same panel of participants. The data tables from the American Working Conditions Survey are being made available to other researchers to allow secondary use of the results.
Support for the project was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Social Security Administration through the Michigan Retirement Research Center.
The report, “Working Conditions in the United States: Results of the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey,” is available at www.rand.org. Other authors of the study are Kathleen J. Mullen, David Powell and Jeffrey B. Wenger, all of RAND, and Till von Wachter of UCLA.
The RAND Labor and Population program examines issues involving U.S. labor markets, the demographics of families and children, policies to improve socio-economic wellbeing, the social and economic functioning of the elderly, and economic and social change in developing countries.