Having to perform better and faster all the time and being forced to keep up with permanent change is a situation that most people are familiar with. Sociologists speak of social acceleration in this context. International studies confirm that this is a phenomenon of today’s society which can make itself felt particularly in the world of work. But how exactly does it occur, and what is the impact of this acceleration in working life? A team headed by the psychologist Christian Korunka from the University of Vienna has for the first time explored these issues in relation to Austria in a project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.
For their analysis, the scholars conducted a repeat survey among more than 2,000 employees in the service sector (administration, health sector, IT) at an interval of 1.5 years. The participants were asked how they perceived acceleration and what challenges they saw arising from that. Additional interview and diary studies provided material for an in-depth analysis of this mainly technology-driven phenomenon. The key word in this context is digitalisation. “We are living in a permanent software update”, is how Korunka describes the phenomenon addressing one of the three new requirements the research team identified in their investigations: being forced to continuously upgrade one’s skills. The permanent learning demands are, however, perceived positively by employees, because they increase motivation and satisfaction. “People like to learn, this can be demonstrated in many areas”, confirms Christian Korunka in the interview with scilog. This said, the scholar also recounts that there are some people unable to keep up with this permanent updating process who will drop out. “We have to be aware of the fact that this new world of work also creates losers.”
Work intensification and its consequences
The ambivalent consequences of “always more in less time” are clearly demonstrated in the relatively recent phenomenon of work intensification. The central result the researchers from the University of Vienna were able to glean from their analysis shows that not only is time pressure increasing, but so is the amount of work to be done per time unit. This intensification as a result of acceleration is the second new requirement identified at work and something that most employees regard as stressful. The consequences are lower levels of commitment, decreasing job satisfaction and clashes between work and private life, which increasingly leads to burn-out symptoms. This is a development that can be traced back to the 1990s. “After a stable phase, intensification has been on the rise again since 2000”, says Korunka. Employees with either low or high education levels and elderly individuals assessed this situation as particularly stressful.
Flexibility and its limits
For many employees, having to do more tasks in less time also means being given more latitude for planning and decisions. This increase in autonomy, which the scientists identified as the third major requirement in the new world of work, was assessed by the participants as a challenge that could have both positive effects by producing more flexibility and also negative effects by inducing exhaustion. Having more leeway to design one’s working life also means more responsibility and a greater need for self-structuring. The newly gained resource can thus easily become a source of stress. “The classical paradigm was ‘the more autonomy the better’”, explains the psychologist. “In a world of work without boundaries, however, there can also be too much of it.”
Dealing with resources
In the context of the five-year FWF-supported project, the research team from Vienna also looked at how employees cope with increasingly demanding requirements. They found two response patterns. On the one hand, people try to actively cope with work requirements by increasing the pace, staying on for longer hours or working from home and reducing break time. On the other hand, the scholars observed passive reactions reflected by a drop in the quality of work or fake achievements, such as pretending to have reached certain goals.
There remains the question as to what companies can do to help their workers cope with increasing requirements, which is in their mutual interest. “Companies are called upon to set limits, develop guidelines and meaningful indicators and, above all, to involve their staff in decisions”, such are the key factors quoted by Korunka. Structure and security are the prerequisites for productive work with a high level of quality. When companies cater to these basic needs, their employees are clearly less stressed, as the investigations have shown, than if companies rely on their staff’s individual skills of time- and self-management.
Christian Korunka is a professor at the University of Vienna’s Institute of Applied Psychology: Work, Education and Economy, where he heads the Occupational and Organisational Psychology Unit. The psychologist conducts research on changes in job demands over time and the impact of company structures on working life.