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Trends in Work Stress and Exhaustion in Advanced Economies


The study examines trends in work-related stress and exhaustion between 1997 and 2005 among employees in 13 countries and aims to identify the social and market forces underlying these trends. We argue that investigating the degree to which workers perceive their jobs as stressful or exhausting (indicators of job strain) has advantages over studying perceived job demands (antecedents of job strain). Analysis of comparative data from the International Social Survey Programme revealed that job strain is fairly prevalent affecting about 30–40 % of the workforce. Patterns of change over time varied substantially across countries and occupational groups. In most countries work stress has not increased between 1997 and 2005, two notable exceptions being Ireland and Slovenia. Work-related exhaustion has risen to a significant degree in the Czech Republic, Denmark and Hungary. There was also evidence that job strain has declined among high-level managerial, professional and technical workers in some countries. The findings suggest that protective institutions may help to mitigate job strain while rapid economic development increases workers’ risk of experiencing job strain.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    Between 2005 and 2010, the shares of workers who agree that their ‘job involves working at very high speed’ (at least a quarter of the work time), for instance, has decreased by more than 5 %-points in Belgium, Denmark, Portugal and Sweden, while it has increased by more than 5 %-points in Cyprus, France, Hungary and Ireland. It has remained stable (plus/minus 2 %-points) in Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Latvia, The Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and the UK.

  2. 2.

    The authors of that report conceptualize high ‘work intensity’ as a negative contribution to job quality, yet in line with the approach taken in this study, they acknowledge that the association of work intensity with job quality may be ambiguous.

  3. 3.

    Handel (2005: 75) finds that respondents who report that their ‘work is often stressful’ or that they often ‘come home from work exhausted’ tend to be less satisfied with their jobs, while those who report that they work hard tend to be more satisfied.

  4. 4.

    Data on working conditions that would allow for the analysis of time trends since the onset of the recession in 2008 are available from the European Social Survey (ESS) and the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS). These data can be used for studying trends in job demands, work pressure and intensity (e.g., Gallie and Zhou 2013) but they do not allow for an analysis of trends in work stress that would go beyond 2005. Cross-national studies of levels of (not trends in) work stress can be carried out using the fifth EWCS (data for 2010) that introduced a new indicator of work stress.

  5. 5.

    While ‘work pressure’ and ‘work intensity’ are terms that are often used interchangeably, the latter tends to be more narrowly defined as the perceived pressure of having to work fast (e.g., Burchell and Fagan 2004; Green and McIntosh 2001).

  6. 6.

    In 2005, seven countries carried out face-to-face interviews (Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland and the US), four administered self-completion surveys by mail (Denmark, France, Norway, Sweden) while Germany and Britain combined face-to-face interviews with self-completion of parts of the questionnaire with interviewer involvement.

  7. 7.

    Lack of sufficient detail prevents the calculation of exact response rates in the ISSP (see Harkness et al. 2001: 2). In the 13 countries covered by the analysis in this study, approximated response rates (completed cases divided by issued sample) in 2005 were above 60 % in four countries (Denmark, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden) and above 40 % in all remaining countries but Germany (37 %). In 1997, approximated response rates surmounted 40 % in all countries (and were above 60 % in eight). For France no comparable rates of response can be calculated (reports of implausibly high ‘issued samples’).

  8. 8.

    Between 2005 and 2011 about 2,400 research papers have been produced using ISSP data, see www.issp.org.

  9. 9.

    For these descriptive analyses, the data is weighted using the sample weight provided in the ISSP, that does not account for occupational distributions, combined with an additional weight that accounts for the occupational composition of the ISSP samples. This additional weight has been computed drawing on country-specific information from the OECD on the occupational composition of the workforce and its change over the observation period (details available upon request).

  10. 10.

    The cultural understanding of survey questions can be assumed to have remained stable between 1997 and 2005 and the survey methodology is more similar across time than across countries. In the majority of cases the survey methodology did not change across survey waves. The exceptions are Denmark, where face-to-face interviews in 1997 have been replaced by a mail survey in 2005, Germany and Switzerland, where mail surveys have been replaced by face-to-face interviews in 2005, and the US, where self-completion with interviewer involvement has been replaced by face-to-face interviews in 2005.


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Part of this research was carried out while Nadia Steiber was a Marie Curie Fellow at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy. The support is gratefully acknowledged. An earlier version of this article was presented at the ILLR Conference on the Quality of Jobs at Cornell University. We are grateful to the conference participants for their constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Nadia Steiber.



See Tables 4 and 5.

Table 4 Sample description
Table 5 Structural variables, 2005-levels and change 1997–2005

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Steiber, N., Pichler, F. Trends in Work Stress and Exhaustion in Advanced Economies. Soc Indic Res 121, 215–239 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-014-0633-7

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  • Comparative study
  • Job demands
  • Job strain
  • Work stress
  • Trends