Skip to main content

Introduction

In the last forty years, the working world has undergone major economic and technological developments. In response to the challenges of a globalised economy, where financial markets play an increasingly prominent role, businesses have adjusted their strategies to enhance profitability. They have adopted innovative organisational approaches that support flexibility and responsiveness, and they have implemented management methods focused on individual autonomy. These transformations have a profound impact on the nature of production processes and the working conditions. 

Economic and technological changes

The growing globalisation of the economy and work

In recent decades, globalisation has intensified under the combined effects of the liberalisation of trade and the development of means of communication and transport. Flows of capital, and movement of people, goods, and services have continuously increased, ignoring boundaries between countries. The implications for businesses are manifold. Globalisation has brought them into an era of generalised competition. Companies are fighting a commercial and technological battle to meet the needs of an economic market that is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in demand. This competition is forcing them to increase their innovation efforts, and to produce an endless stream of new products and services in order to win additional market share[1]. It requires a dynamic of continuous change, forcing companies to adopt more flexible modes of organisation and production, and to incorporate market logic into their industrial processes. In an economy that is increasingly borderless, work is also becoming borderless. Some firms relocate their production or logistics units in order to take advantage of low labour costs and of the proximity of emerging markets. Others outsource some of their activities internationally to subcontractors or to subsidiaries, distancing their production centres from their decision centres. Those choices guide their entrepreneurial strategies and influence their management policies on production, human resources, and jobs.

The increasing involvement of financial markets in corporate governance

At the end of the 1980’s, shareholders and financial markets increased their power of influence over the management of large companies. They no longer hesitated to change the policies of the firms in which they invested, and refused to invest when the return on equity was not maximised. They thus encourage structural reforms, in particular mergers. Through the resulting economies of scale, such restructuring aims to improve the competitiveness of firms. Under certain circumstances and in some sectors, in particular severely affected sectors, this profitability principle can serve to maintain a certain level of employment or even create new jobs through structural reforms. It is not always comparable with the speculative financial motivations that guide certain investors. The deregulation of the financial markets has fostered the rise of speculative investment funds (pension funds, performance funds, and mutual funds) whose aim is to make fast and substantial return on investment. Wielding their financial power, they impose short term and immediate high profitability strategies. This increases the risks of the firms becoming destabilised, and is sometimes detrimental to their subsequent development[2]. In addition, they are often accompanied by job cuts not only at the level of firms but also at that of their subsidiaries, suppliers, and subcontractors. The frontline victims are the employees who are in the weakest positions on the labour and job market: young people, migrant workers, women, and older workers.

The development of advanced information and communication technology - digitalisation

Advanced information and communication technology (ICT) developed to a considerable extent during the 1990’s, marking the switch to an Internet economy enabling information from all over the world to be accessed in real time. Data from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) show that the proportion of people using computers at work has steadily risen since the 1990's. More specifically, the proportion of workers reporting using a computer ‘almost all the time’ or ‘most of their time’ at work was around 14% in 1991. In 2021 71% of respondents state that their job always or often involves working with computers, laptops, or smartphones[3].  
Computer servers now make it possible to distribute a mass of encoded data in real time to all of the workstations of a firm. Production process management can be organised in real time, as can planning of labour needs.

With this new technology, the concept of time disappears and distances are also wiped out. There is no need to be physically present to work together and to coordinate business activities. Mobile telecommunications, video-communications, and laptop computers with the ability to interconnect with corporate computer systems facilitate networking and enable the various forms of remote working, at home or nomadic. Computer innovations (such as, teamwork software or “groupware") and software for decentralised workflow management offer further technical assistance. Groupware enables dispersed teams to work together interactively on common tasks. Workflow software makes it possible to check a process from upstream to downstream, and to optimise management of information and of time. The emergence of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, algorithms, advanced robotics, digital labour platforms are transforming how human labour is designed and performed. For instance, 42% of the respondents in the European Working Conditions Telephone Survey (EWCTS, 2021) indicate that a computerised system influences to a large extent what they do in their work[3]. This has significant implications, not only in terms of work performance but also for OSH. Therefore, EU-OSHA is carrying out an OSH overview research project (2020-2023) to provide in-depth information for policy, prevention and practice in relation to the challenges and opportunities of digitalisation in the context of OSH. The project focuses on the following areas[4]:

  • advanced robotics and artificial intelligence;
  • worker management through artificial intelligence;
  • digital platform work;
  • smart digital systems; and
  • remote work

 

New modes of corporate management

Unstable economic markets, pressure from globalised competition, and high demand requirements (in terms of variety, quality and delivery times) are pushing companies to adapt to this new situation. They have rethought the way they organise their work, driven by their need to be reactive and profitable, and by the aspirations of employees to gain better control over their work. This is how a new production system has come into place. This is different from post-war Fordism whose goal was to increase manufacturers’ production through a marked division of work, work standardisation and series production. However, all Taylorist forms of work organisation, based on the segmentation and breakdown of tasks into individual operations, have not completely disappeared[5][6]. One of the major innovations has been the introduction and then the generalisation of more flexible and demand-driven modes of managing and of organising companies.

The development of flexible organisation modes

The search for flexibility and reactivity has, in particular, developed through certain technical and organisational models such as, lean production and networked organisation.

The principle of just-in-time or lean production is to produce the necessary output with a minimum level of stock, and to respond to customer or end-user demand within very short lead times[1]. In order to increase production profitability, the idea is to produce as and when required by the customer while minimising the costs of immobilising the products and mobilising only the resources that are necessary. No sooner produced than marketed. Cycle times are reduced, dead times are tightened, and lead times are shortened. Labour needs are calculated down to the bare minimum and contracts are adapted accordingly. Employee working times need to be compatible with the uncertainty and with the unpredictability of demand. In certain sectors of activity (such as, the large-scale retail trade) or distance selling, employment contracts do not indicate specific working hours. Instead they merely mention timeslots of availability during which employees are “on call". The principles of “networked organisation" aim to replace the model in which tasks are organised sequentially with each person working separately, to set up teams working collectively as projects arise. At the end of the project, the teams are dissolved or can be recombined for other needs. Instead of being rigidly hierarchical, the way the business operates becomes more modular, cross-cutting, and decentralised. This flexibility makes it possible to reconcile the advantages of mass production with the advantages of customised consumption, and to propose more rapid responses to customers[2]. Within businesses, it changes the forms of coordination and cooperation: teamwork is developing, the number of hierarchical levels is decreasing, customers and suppliers are stakeholders involved in the process of production, decision and supervision. Employee initiative, autonomy, and responsibility are seen as more worthwhile or effectively required in order to achieve performance and quality targets.

Overall customer satisfaction at the core of corporate management

Economic markets are increasingly driven by demand, rather than by supply. In addition to addressing industrial concerns, firms now have to accommodate market concerns leading them to adjust their outputs to match the fluctuations and needs of demand. To achieve this, many firms have developed “customer-oriented" strategies[7][8]. The customer and customer satisfaction are a key concern for companies. Active customer participation is increasingly sought after: surveys are conducted on customer tastes and preferences, customers are asked for their opinions about the quality of the services rendered to them. Customers are no longer merely consumers, they are also opinion leaders for the products and services they receive and assessors of the quality of those goods and services.

Total quality approaches are now part of the promises by firms to guarantee high standards of requirement for their customers. Such approaches are based on compliance with quality standards, such as the ISO 9001 standard[9] and on setting strict frameworks for everyone’s tasks. The idea behind these approaches is to make sure the goods or services delivered to customers have characteristics that are always constant independent of the person producing them. It is thus certified that the products coming off the production lines or that the services proposed will comply with strict specifications, compliance with which can be checked at any time. Through these approaches, everyone in the firm is committed to follow formalised working methods that are defined precisely, and to accept being monitored and inspected to ensure that they are implementing those methods properly.

 

Impacts on working conditions for employees and psychosocial factors at work

The introduction of new forms of organisation was initially associated with promises of improved working conditions through greater worker autonomy, increased participation in the management and lighter hierarchical structures. But hopes have had to be tempered. Work has intensified under pressure from ever tighter deadlines and throughput rates. Employees have discovered autonomy without means, and additional working constraints together with the costs of responsibility. Monitoring of work is developing and is taking unprecedented forms through quality approaches and digitalisation. Finally, the boundaries between being at work and not at work are becoming increasingly blurred, making it more difficult to achieve work-life balance (i.e. reconciling work, family, and social life). The tensions created by working under such conditions may result in the exposure of employees to psychosocial risks, which may, in turn, have an impact on physical, psychological and social health[10].

Intensification of work

Quite widespread across the European Union[11][12], work intensification is a predominant feature of the way work and firms are changing. It manifests itself essentially through acceleration in the speed of working, under pressure from customers, through urgent work, and through denser working time. With the development of market rationale in industrial firms, the number of employees in direct contact with customers has increased constantly. Creation of on-line services has contributed to this expansion by putting customers in contact with employees who process their requests, without going through intermediaries. Thus, employees are increasingly subjected not only to “conventional" production constraints (throughput rates, production standards, etc.) but also to direct pressure from demand. 

The speed at which they have to work is dependent not only on production targets but also, and indeed above all, on variations in demand and on customer pressure. According to the EWCTS 2021, 49% of workers frequently worked at high speed and 48% to tight deadlines[13]. In addition, results from The European Survey of Enterprise on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-3) [14]show that pressure due to time constraints is a common psychosocial risk factor, especially in the sector Education, human health and social work activities. Moreover, between 2014 and 2019, the percentage of establishments reporting the risk factor of time pressure, has increased in almost every sector (see figure 1).

Figure 1 - Psychosocial risk factors present in the establishment: Pressure due to time constraints (% Yes) - ESENER-3, Comparison 2014 - 2019

 

 

 Source[14]

 

Lead time constraints often imposed by contact with the customer, in addition, to those imposed by production standards can be detrimental to performance of quality work. Employees can then have to grapple with contradictory requirements in attempting to satisfy as many customers as possible, while also being available and fully tuned-in to what they are saying. Concern for quality of service can be in conflict with concern for quantity or for immediate satisfaction of demand[15]. For some workers, this situation can injure their professional pride when “doing a quick job" conflicts with the concept they have of “doing a good job". Flexible modes of organisation have established urgent work as an accepted fact of life. Such work has become a permanent feature and almost the norm. Whether working with a machine or with a customer, employees have to react as quickly as possible and in compliance with defined quality standards, which adds an additional pressure factor [16]. Any lateness, malfunction, or unforeseen event then causes major disruption. In the absence of margins for action, workers are placed in a situation of overload that is difficult to cope with, as urgent jobs and pressure accumulate. Such a situation is not without its costs to employee’s physical and psychological health[17][18].

Time pressure is not only intense, it is increasingly exerted continuously on employees. Maximum efficiency is required at all times of the day. In such modes of organisation, where times are calculated without any additional margins, slack periods are a rare occurrence. Times for taking a break and for recovering can no longer be found in the cycle of peak periods and of quiet periods. The growing density of work also manifests itself through the squeeze on lead times. In order to win new contracts, firms propose manufacturing and delivery times that are ever shorter and prices that are ever lower. It is the employees who bear the brunt of these strategies for reducing costs and lead times; and, in turn, it is up to workers to comply with the contractual commitments made to customers and that are sometimes difficult to honour.

Autonomy counterbalanced by increasingly numerous constraints

In the 1970’s, there was a strong demand from employees for greater autonomy in their work. That demand was fired by the desire of workers to have influence in their work both in terms of doing it, but also in terms of participating in decisions made about it. That desire for autonomy was also voiced by management who wanted to foster initiative, innovation, and responsibility in employees through new managerial strategies: for example, fewer instructions given by superiors on how to do tasks, workers encouraged to sort out incidents and malfunctions by themselves, and workers given possibilities of changing the lead times set, and so on. Such managerial reforms were part of a larger trend: that of transforming employees into entrepreneurs individually responsible for the assignments that are entrusted to them.

In spite of the emphasis being put on developing procedural autonomy (i.e. choosing how to work), the progress achieved was limited and a return to greater control was observed in the early 2000s[19]. In general, more or less one out of two workers report they are able to choose or change their order of tasks (EWCTS 2021)[3].. Although employees are increasingly autonomous in carrying out their work, they are at the same time, subjected to more constraints. The screw has been turned as regards performance targets that the employees are expected to reach, and work speed and time pressure have increased. By limiting the ways work can be done quickly, work intensification has reduced actual autonomy. Quality control standards have further eroded autonomy, making autonomy a controlled autonomy, serving to reconcile employee initiative and creativity with managerial control.

At the same time, autonomy has been accompanied with the individualisation of work. It is the worker who has to bear the burden of responsibility for the work, with little means being allocated by the organisation for succeeding in his or her new assignments. The obligation to achieve results is looming ever larger, while the resources given to the employees are rarely up to the results called for by the firm. Employees often find they are alone in coping with the blurred zones they encounter in their assignments. As potential consequence to the autonomy granted to employees, they may be held individually liable for performance of their work and for the results thereof. 

Reinforced monitoring of work

Even though new forms of work organisation give preference to autonomy and responsibility at work, employees are increasingly inspected, monitored, and assessed. Such monitoring relates not only to optimisation of resources, but also to customer satisfaction and to compliance with quality standards. At the same time, the spectrum of forms of monitoring is broadening.

ICT is playing a leading part in these new forms of work organisation. Information systems and smart applications, algorithms, AI make it possible to collect and to analyse a large quantity of information on how workers are carrying out their tasks. Speed of performance, response time for responding to a customer request, and achievement of performance targets are recorded and transformed into indicators on work performance. This can put workers in a situation of surveillance and dependence. 

Individual assessment, when it is combined with management by targets, can give rise to competition between workers. Mistrust, conflicts, and even unfair behaviour between employees may impact social relationships at work. Social solidarity and the ability to get along with one another can be jeopardised by such tension[20].

Similarly, quality approaches reinforce the specified and individualised nature of work. They constrain employees to adopt standardised and homogeneous working procedures, regardless of the characteristics of the working situations. They rigidify the occupational practices of the employees by setting formal frameworks for them. These approaches can also bring workers to face certain dilemmas: for example, should an unforeseen event occur, it may be up to the employees to decide between deviating from a procedure, to solve a problem in the production line, or complying with the specified instructions.

AI and digital technologies gather real-time data on workers’ behaviours from various sources, aiming to provide insights for management and facilitate (semi-)automated decision-making processes based on algorithms[21]. However, the use of such systems for worker monitoring can have negative consequences, including intensification of work, loss of job control and autonomy, discrimination, and dehumanisation and 'datafication' of workers. AI-based worker management can also contribute to accelerated work pace, increasing the likelihood of accidents and musculoskeletal disorders due to repetitive movements or awkward postures. Furthermore, the implementation of AI-based employee management within an organisation may result in a lack of transparency and trust, as workers often remain unaware of the types of data being collected and how it is being utilised[21].  An EU-OSHA research project in this area discusses the legal, ethical and privacy challenges by these new systems for AI-based management, as well as the concerns for OSH, particularly in terms of psychosocial risk factors4

Work-life balance

With flexible organisation modes, working time is also becoming more elastic. Working hours are adapted to new production throughput rates, and to easier access to services for customers. More split, irregular, and unpredictable than ever working hours are also spread over wider ranges of time. So work time gets into personal time more easily. Unrestricted availability required of executives[22] can lead to frequent overtime and extended availability, in particular by using mobile technologies shifting work from dedicated work areas. Work then invades the personal sphere. Odd or time shifted hours mean employees are out of phase with family and social life. Similarly, working on call complicates any organisation of private life. According to the findings of the EWCTS around 30% of workers work on a regular basis in their free time to meet work demands3. This intrusion of working time into other living time makes it difficult to find work-life balance[23] . However, not all employees are confronted equally with such time tensions. Type of occupation and margin of autonomy have an influence, but it is above all the family situation and the distribution of roles by gender in society that give rise to major differences between men and women in this regard. In general, it is women who most frequently have to make choices against their private and social activities. They may also have to give up to some extent their careers and their financial independence[24].

Viri

[1] Askenazy, P., Les désordres du travail, enquête sur le nouveau productivisme, Seuil. 2004.

[2] Lallement, M., Le travail sous tensions, Seuil, 2010.

[3] Eurofound. European Working Conditions Telephone Survey 2021 - Data visualisation. Available at: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/data/european-working-conditions-telephone-survey-2021-data-visualisation 

[4] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Digitalisation of work. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/themes/digitalisation-work 

[5] Veltz, P., & Zarifian, P ‘Vers de nouveaux modèles d'organisation?’, Sociologie du travail, No. 1, 1993. Available at: https://www.persee.fr/doc/sotra_0038-0296_1993_num_35_1_2105

[6] De Coninck, F., ‘Du post-taylorisme à l’effritement des organisations’, Travail et Emploi, No. 100, 2004. Available at: https://travail-emploi.gouv.fr/publications/Revue_Travail-et-Emploi/pdf/100_3027.pdf 

[7] Beauquier S., ‘Les stratégies d’orientation client et le travail des agents en contact’, Travail et Emploi, No. 103, 2005. 

[8] Zarifian, P., Objectif compétence: mythe, construction ou réalité?, Editions Liaisons, 1999.

[9] ISO 9001:2015 Quality management systems — Requirements

[10] Gollac, M,.& Bodier, M., ‘Mesurer les facteurs psychosociaux de risque au travail pour les maîtriser’, Rapport du Collège d’expertise sur le suivi des risques psychosociaux au travail, 2011. Available at: http://www.college-risquespsychosociaux-travail.fr/site/Rapport-College-SRPST.pdf 

[11] Merllié, D., & Paoli, P., Dix ans de conditions de travail dans l’union européenne, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2000. 

[12] Lorenz, E and Valeyre, “Organisational innovation. HRM and labour market structure: a comparison of the EU-15”, The Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 47, 2005.

[13] Eurofound. Working conditions in the time of COVID-19: Implications for the future, European Working Conditions Telephone Survey 2021 series, 2022. Available at: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2022/working-conditions-in-the-time-of-covid-19-implications-for-the-future 

[14] EU-OSHA, ESENER 2019, Third European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging. Available at: https://visualisation.osha.europa.eu/esener#!/en/survey/overview/2019 

[15] Gollac, M., & Volkoff, S. ‘Citius, altius, fortius. L’intensification du travail’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, No. 114, 1996. 

[16] Eurofound. Burchell, B., Cartron, D., Csizmadia, P.n Delcampe,S., Gollac, M., Illessy, M., Lorenz, E., Mako, C., O’Brien, C., and Valeyre, A., Working conditions in the European Union: Working time and work intensity, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2009. Available at: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2009/working-conditions/working-conditions-in-the-european-union-working-time-and-work-intensity 

[17] Niedhammer, I, Chastang, J.F, David, S., Barouhiel, L., & Barrandon, G., ‘Psychosocial work environment and mental health: Job-strain and effort-reward imbalance models in a context of major organizational changes’, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, vol. 12, 2006. 

[18] Stansfeld, S., & Candy, B. ‘Psychosocial work environment and mental health – A meta-analytic review’, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, vol. 32, 2006.

[19] Bue J., Coutrot T., Guignon N., & Sandret N., ‘Les facteurs de risques psychosociaux au travail. Une approche quantitative par l’enquête Sumer’, Revue française des affaires sociales, No. 2-3, 2008.

[20] Dejours, C., ‘Conjurer la violence. Travail, violence et santé’, Editions Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 2011.

[21] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Artificial intelligence for worker management: implications for occupational safety and health. Report, 2022. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/artificial-intelligence-worker-management-implications-occupational-safety-and-health 

[22] Balazs, G., & and Faguer, J.P. ‘Une nouvelle forme de management: l’évaluation’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, No. 114, 1996.

[23] Vendramin, P., Temps, rythmes de travail et conciliation des temps sociaux, Fondation Travail-Université, 2007. Available at: http://www.ftu-namur.org/fichiers/Enq-temps.pdf 

[24] Vendramin, P., & Valenduc G., Les tensions du temps, Fondation Travail-Université, 2005. 

Dodatne informacije

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Digitalisation of work. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/themes/digitalisation-work 

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Artificial intelligence for worker management: implications for occupational safety and health. Report, 2022. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/artificial-intelligence-worker-management-implications-occupational-safety-and-health 

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Digital platform work and occupational safety and health: overview of regulation, policies, practices and research. Report, 2022. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/digital-platform-work-and-occupational-safety-and-health-overview-regulation-policies-practices-and-research

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Key trends and drivers of change in information and communication technologies and work location. Report, 2017. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/key-trends-and-drivers-change-information-and-communication-technologies-and-work 

Sodelavec

Sandrine Guyot

Juliet Hassard

Karla Van den Broek

Prevent, Belgium