Burnt-out Britain exposed as workers are facing gruelling conditions just to earn a pittance

Headlines about work intensification TUC
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“Gruelling” work intensity is a growing problem in “burnt-out Britain’. That’s the conclusion of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which has published a new report showing people work harder and longer now compared to previous years. Unfortunately for us, it doesn’t look like things are changing any time soon.

‘Work intensification’ on the rise

The TUC says increasing work intensity means workers are having to pack more work into working hours – with work often spilling over into their private lives. It says “work intensification“:

has been defined as “the rate of physical and/or mental input to work tasks performed during the working day”. Work intensity comprises several elements, including the rate of task performance; the intensity of those tasks in terms of physical, cognitive, and emotional demands; the extent to which they are performed simultaneously or in sequence, continuously, or with interruptions; and the gaps between tasks.

The union body thinks work intensification is getting worse, so it looked into the issue.

Polling company Thinks Insight did research for the TUC. Of over 2,100 workers it spoke to:

  • 55% said that their work “is getting more intense and demanding”.
  • 61% are “exhausted at the end of most working days”.

Moreover, compared to 2021 workers said things were deteriorating:

  • 36% are working more outside of their contracted hours. Tasks include “reading, sending and answering emails”.
  • 32% are doing the same, but on “core work activities”.
  • 40% say bosses have made them “do more work in the same amount of time”.
  • 38% say work is making them feel “more stressed”.

Predictably, work regimes are hitting women harder than men. The TUC’s research found that:

Read on...

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compared to men, women are more likely to say they feel exhausted at the end of most working days (67% to 56%) and that work is getting more intense (58% to 53%).

Women are overrepresented in sectors such as education and health and social care. These are sectors where staff shortages and other factors, such as burdensome scrutiny and long working hours, have led to increased work intensification.

And women continue to shoulder most of the caring responsibilities at home, which can further add to time-pressures on them.

Of course, it’s bosses that are making a killing off flogging workers to the brink of exhaustion.

Bosses: £26bn of our labour for free

Another piece of TUC analysis found that workers doing unpaid overtime in 2022 meant bosses pocketed £26bn of free labour. It found that 3.5 million people did unpaid overtime last year. On average, each worker put in 7.4 unpaid hours a week. The TUC said of this:

As well as being detrimental to family life, long term-ill health conditions caused by overwork include hypertension and cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, and long-term effects on the immune system, increasing risk of causing autoimmune disease diagnoses.

When workers are tired, or under excessive pressure, they are also more likely to suffer injury, or be involved in an accident.

Moreover, things are not improving any time soon.

No improvement on the horizon

The TUC says several factors combine to create a perfect storm for work intensity – which aren’t currently going anywhere. These include:

  • Surveillance technology and algorithmic management: Algorithmically set productivity targets can be unrealistic and unsustainable – forcing people to work at high speed. Algorithmic management can also force workers to work faster through constant monitoring, including monitoring the actions they perform and their productivity.
  • Staff shortages: Low pay, excessive workloads and a lack of good flexible work are key drivers of the staffing crisis. Staff shortages put huge strain on those who remain as they try to plug the gaps, fuelling excessive workloads and long-working hours. This undermines the quality of our public services, and leads to high attrition and absenteeism rates, worsening the workload crisis.
  • Inadequate enforcement of working time regulations: The working time regulations contain important rights for workers which could help safeguard against work intensification and the consequential health and safety risks, but… [the] Health and Safety Executive, which is responsible for enforcement of the maximum weekly working time limits, night work limits and health assessments for night work, has had its budget slashed in half over the past decade.
  • Decline in collective bargaining: Industrial changes have combined with anti-union legislation to make it much harder for people to come together in trade unions to speak up together at work. This decline in collective bargaining coverage has led to less union negotiation around work organisation, resulting in work intensification.

Plus, the Tories are planning on making all this worse. The TUC said:

Ministers are currently looking to water down rules on how working time is recorded by employers in the UK, which they could impose using powers in the controversial REUL (Retained EU Law) Act.

This could significantly weaken our already-inadequate enforcement system even further, making it more difficult for labour market inspectors to prove non-compliance.

So, what’s to be done?

Join a bloody union

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said:

No one should be pushed to the brink because of their job.

Gruelling hours, pace and expectations at work are growing problems up and down the country. This is a recipe for burnt out Britain.

Chronic staff shortages, intrusive surveillance tech and poor enforcement of workers’ rights have all combined to create a perfect storm.

It’s little wonder that so many feel exhausted at the end of their working day.

It’s time to tackle ever-increasing work-intensity. That means strengthening enforcement so that workers can effectively exercise their rights.

It means introducing a right to disconnect to let workers properly switch off outside of working hours.

And it means making sure workers and unions are properly consulted on the use of AI and surveillance tech, and ensuring they are protected from punishing ways of working.

Of course, Nowak could have summed all that up quite easily: ‘join a bloody union’. While the trade unions in the UK are far from perfect, they are currently workers’ best defence against unscrupulous bosses who are earning off overworking and underpaying their staff.

Featured image via the TUC – screengrab

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