Emerging Issues in Security

Over One-Half of Americans Say the Workplace Is a Hostile or Threatening Social Environment

One in five American workers finds the workplace hostile or threatening, a new study finds. The American Working Conditions Survey unveils some unfavorable working conditions in the United States that could have an impact on keeping employees safe.

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The American workplace is physically and emotionally taxing, with workers frequently facing unstable work schedules, unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions, and an often hostile social environment, according to a first-of-its-kind study that probes working conditions in the United States.

According to an in-depth study of 3,066 U.S workers, nearly 55% of workers surveyed face “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions. The findings stem from research conducted by investigators at RAND Corporation, Harvard Medical School, and UCLA, and are from the American Working Conditions Survey—one of the most in-depth surveys ever done to examine conditions in the American workplace.

More than one-half of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions. Nearly one in five workers—a “disturbingly high” fraction—say they face a hostile or threatening social environment at work. Younger women are the workers most likely to experience unwanted sexual attention, while younger men are more likely to experience verbal abuse.

“I was surprised how taxing the workplace appears to be, both for less-educated and for more-educated workers,” said lead author Nicole Maestas, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an adjunct economist at RAND. “Work is taxing at the office and it’s taxing when it spills out of the workplace into people’s family lives.”

The American Working Conditions Survey found that while many American workers adjust their personal lives to accommodate work matters, about one-third of workers say they are unable to adjust their work schedules to accommodate personal matters. In general, women are more likely than men to report difficulty arranging for time off during work hours to take care of personal or family matters.

More than one-in-four American workers say they have too little time to do their job, with the complaint being most common among white-collar workers. In addition, workers say the intensity of work frequently spills over into their personal lives, with about one-half of people reporting that they perform some work in their free time in order to meet workplace demands.

Despite these challenges, American workers appear to have a certain degree of autonomy on the job, most feel confident about their skill set, and many do report that they receive social support while on the job.

Other highlights from the report include:

  • The intensity of work, such as pace, deadlines, and time constraints differ across occupational groups, with white-collar workers experiencing greater work intensity than blue-collar workers.
  • Jobs in the United States feature a mix of monotonous tasks and autonomous problem solving. While 62% of workers say they face monotonous tasks, more than 80% report that their jobs involve “solving unforeseen problems” and “applying own ideas.”
  • More than one-half of American workers describe their boss as supportive.
  • Only 38% of workers say their job offers good prospects for advancement. All workers—regardless of education—become less optimistic about career advancement as they become older.
  • Four out of five American workers report that their job provides “meaning” always or most of the time. Older, college-educated men were those most likely to report at least one dimension of meaningful work.