Statistical insights: Job strain affects four out of ten European workers

OECD Statistics Directorate

More than four out of ten workers in European OECD countries held jobs where the quality of the working environment resulted in job strain in 2015, with male, low-educated, and younger workers disproportionately affected and significant differences across countries. Nearly two-thirds of workers in Greece and over half in Spain, for example, worked in ‘strained’ jobs in 2015.

Why do statistics on the Quality of the Working Environment matter?

It goes without saying that working in a strained environment will impact negatively on the quality of individuals’ lives and their well-being but measures of job strain can also provide important insights into other policy domains too, such as changes in and drivers of  labour force participation, productivity and economic performance more generally.

…And what are they telling us?

Data show that, on average, 43% of workers in European OECD countries experienced job strain in 2015. Around half of these workers cited time pressure at work as a contributory factor and one-third reported exposure to physical health risk factors. Indeed, over one-fifth reported both as contributory factors. Moreover, factors considered as alleviating job strain were relatively low. Less than one-third of workers reported having autonomy at work and learning opportunities, while only one quarter described their social work environment as supportive and more than half had neither resource.

Among European OECD countries (for which data are available in 2015), Scandinavian countries typically have the lowest levels of job-strain, with Finland (28%) and Denmark (30%) performing best. The two countries with the highest rates of job strain are Greece (64%) and Spain (52%).


Source: OECD Job Quality Database

Job strain differed significantly across education levels. Workers with high levels of education enjoy the lowest levels of job strain (29%), lower than workers with medium levels of education (42%) and significantly lower than those with low education levels (62%).  Differences across age groups are less marked however. Younger workers aged 15-29 have only a slightly higher percentage of job strain (45%) than older workers (42%).


Source: OECD Job Quality Database

Gender differences are also apparent. For example job strain amongst men is 15% higher than amongst women in Poland, 12% higher in the Czech Republic, and 9% higher in Greece, while the reverse is true in Finland, Ireland and Austria. Overall, within European OECD countries, 45% of men experience job strain, as opposed to 40% of women.

What happened to the Quality of the Working Environment during the economic crisis?

There were significant differences between countries in terms of how the quality of the working environment was affected during the initial phase of the economic crisis. In Belgium, Finland, France, Luxembourg and the Slovak Republic the quality of the working environment deteriorated significantly between 2005 and 2010, but returned to pre-crisis levels in 2015. In other countries however, such as Austria, Hungary, and Spain, measures of job strain improved during the crisis, in large part reflecting the fact that the crisis saw disproportionate losses in low quality jobs.  Indeed since 2010, as employment has begun to grow again, so too have measures of job strain in all three countries.


Source: OECD Job Quality Database

Interestingly, a remarkable decline in the quality of the working environment took place in countries that enjoyed the highest levels in 2005, such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland, although all three countries remain at the low end of the job strain scale. At the same time those countries where the quality of the working environment was comparatively low in 2005, such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Germany and Portugal, saw some improvement. Overall, the quality of the working environment showed a process of convergence across countries between 2005 and 2015.

The measure explained

Job strain forms one of three dimensions of the OECD’s framework to measure and assess the quality of jobs, which also includes measures of earnings quality (that capture the extent to which earnings contribute to workers’ material well-being) and labour market security (that captures those aspects of economic security related to the risks of job loss and its economic cost for workers). Measures of job strain relate directly to the quality of the working environment, which captures non-economic aspects of job quality. Together, they provide a comprehensive assessment of job quality.

Strained jobs are defined as jobs where workers face a higher number of job demands than the number of resources they have at their disposal. Two indicators of job demand and two of resources are used in the OECD’s Job Quality Framework. Job demands include: i) time pressure, which encompasses long working hours, high work intensity and working time inflexibility; and ii) physical health risk factors, such as dangerous work (i.e. being exposed to noise, vibrations, high and low temperature) and hard work (i.e. carrying and moving heavy loads, painful and tiring positions). Job resources include: i) work autonomy and learning opportunities, which include workers’ freedom to choose and change their work tasks and methods, as well as formal (i.e. training) and informal learning opportunities at work; and ii) social support at work, which measures the extent to which supportive relations prevail among colleagues. The overall Job Strain index, thus, refers to those jobs where workers have greater demands than resources  (See OECD 2015a, pp 24-26; OECD 2014a, pp 104-114).

Where to find the underlying data

OECD Job Quality Database

Useful links

Measuring and assessing job quality: The OECD Job Quality Framework, Cazes, S., A. Hijzen and A. Saint-Martin (2015a), OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 174

Measuring labour market security and its implications for individual well-being, Hijzen, A. and B. Menyhert (2016),  OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 175

Unemployment, temporary work and subjective well-being: Gendered effect of spousal labour market insecurity in the United Kingdom, Inanc, H. (2016), OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. 2016/04

More unequal, but more mobile? Earnings inequality and mobility in OECD countries, Garnero, A., A. Hijzen and S. Martin (2016), OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 177

Well-being in the workplace: Measuring job quality, OECD (2013), How’s Life? 2013: Measuring Well-being, Chapter 5

How good is your job? Measuring and assessing job quality, OECD (2014a), OECD Employment Outlook 2014, Chapter 3

Non-regular employment, job security and the labour market divide, OECD (2014b), OECD Employment Outlook 2014, Chapter 4

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