Stress and wellbeing

Researcher: When we lack influence, job satisfaction disappears

We shouldn’t just discuss the quantity of our working hours, but also the quality of our time spent at work, says psychologist and work life researcher Malene Friis Andersen. She’s concerned that our job satisfaction is at stake if we are not given room to solve our work tasks properly.

When Malene Friis Andersen lived in Nørrebro, she often cycled past a building where a graffiti artist had written "HEJ" on the gable – The only problem was that the J had been written upside down.

It stayed like that for a few weeks, until, in hastily written letters, “IT SAYS “HEJ”. OK?!!!!!” was added.

For Malene Friis Andersen, the story is an example of the professional pride that most people – including the graffiti artist – have for their work, and it is included in her latest book It could be so good: In search of influence and the human element in work life.

I her book she warns that many Danes are losing their job satisfaction because they lack influence over their work tasks and feel reduced to robots or part-time employees. The consequence is that they want to work less, which according to her is also reflected in a current survey from CEVEA. Here, one in four answers that they wish to work less than they do today.

"We are in the process of renegotiating the framework for our working life. For decades, a work week of 37 hours has been set in stone, and it wasn’t something that the general population questioned just 5 years ago, but that is about to change”.

She believes that a discussion about working hours is relevant, but she also calls for the focus to be on the quality of the work and not the quantity.

"If we are only concerned with counting hours, it will be a rather stale discussion. We have to look at how we create better workplaces so that our work lives become enriching and provide quality of life. Otherwise, work is reduced to a dull duty that must be endured for as few hours as possible", explains Malene Friis Andersen.

Many of us perform shadow work

In It could be so good, Malene Friis Andersen identifies an increasing regime of KPIs, target figures and standardization procedures as the main reason why employees are mentally clocking out from their work. According to her, that trend is only getting stronger as new digital tools make it easier to measure and assess employees' productivity.

"It detaches the work from its substance, which is what employees actually care about. Most people want to help the citizen, the customer or the business partner they are hired to assist as best as possible, but they do not have the opportunity to do so within the framework in which they are employed".

However, many employees find it difficult to compromise with their professionalism, and they therefore compensate by working extra to both meet the target figures and feel that they are solving the tasks properly.

A survey among 2,500 Danes shows that half carry out work tasks in their spare time for the sake of citizens or customers, even if they are not obliged to do so. What is more remarkable is that only a little over half of them tell their manager or colleagues about the overtime.

Malene Friis Andersen has dubbed the phenomenon shadow work [skyggearbejde], and it can be seen, for example, in case managers and psychologists who skip their lunch break to spend more time with citizens and clients, as well as in lawyers, engineers and doctors who use their free time to solve tasks or keep professionally updated.

But shadow work is not sustainable in the long term, and Malene Friis Andersen points out that many are either affected by stress or start working in a way that instead delivers only what is needed to meet the target figures.

"For example, we have seen examples of case workers in the municipalities prioritising citizens with “easier” caseloads, because that way they can more easily achieve their targets than if they focus on citizens who require greater effort".

The right to say no has disappeared

A survey of the stress level among IDA members shows that the pace of work is high for many and that one in five feel stressed. The most important reason is a lack of colleagues, which means, among other things, that 27 percent of the respondents have held more than one position in a period.

According to Malene Friis Andersen, this suggests that even sought-after employees such as IDA's members have lost influence in an important area: the right to say no to assignments.

"In the 00s, a change began to take place, where employers went from listening to employees to questioning their input. If they said that they had too many tasks, they were told that they had to learn to say, "never mind" or that it was good enough to solve a task 80 percent".

At the same time, the pace of work has been gradually increased, and, according to Malene Friis Andersen, we are now approaching a breaking point.

"In Denmark, we have one of the highest work intensities in the world. We are wildly productive and fill the day to the brim with tasks. We don't have an hour a day to drink coffee and talk together, so we use up a lot of energy and become disproportionately exhausted”.

A modest hope for the future

Although Malene Friis Andersen admits that it is a gloomy picture she paints of the conditions in many workplaces, she is modestly optimistic about the future.

"We see that more companies are beginning to give greater freedom and better working conditions to their employees in order to retain them. I also think that more people will realize that they are missing out on the full potential and value of their employees if they resign from work and only show up to fill their target numbers”.