The not-so-friendly American workplace

Last Updated Aug 14, 2017 3:11 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- The American workplace is grueling, stressful and surprisingly hostile.

So concludes an in-depth study of 3,066 U.S. workers by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles. The American Working Conditions Survey (AWCS) found "the American workplace is very physically and emotionally taxing, both for workers themselves and their families."

Among the findings:

  • Nearly one in five workers -- a share the study calls "disturbingly high" -- say they face a hostile or threatening environment at work, which can include sexual harassment and bullying. Workers who have to face customers endure a disproportionate share of abuse.
  • Nearly 55 percent say they face "unpleasant and potentially hazardous" conditions.
  • Nearly three quarters say they spend at least a fourth of their time on the job in "intense or repetitive physical" labor. "I was surprised at how physically demanding jobs were," said lead author Nicole Maestas, a Harvard Medical School economist.
  • Telecommuting is rare: 78 percent say they're required to be present in their workplace during working hours.
  • Only 38 percent say their jobs offer good prospects for advancement. And the older they get, the less optimistic they become.
  • About half say they work on their own time to meet the demands of their job.
  • More than a third of workers have no control over their schedules.

"Wow -- [work] is a pretty taxing place for many people," Maestas said. "I was surprised by how pressured and hectic the workplace is."

In many cases, less-educated workers endure tougher working conditions. For example, fewer than half of men without college degrees can take a break whenever they want to, compared to more than 76 percent of men with college degrees. Likewise, nearly 68 percent of men without degrees spend at least a fourth of their time moving heavy loads.

But even more educated workers are struggling with aspects of their jobs. One common complaint: A large percentage of people say they struggle to arrange time off during work hours to deal with personal or family matters (see chart below).

"Time pressures at work spill over into the personal lives of many Americans," the researchers conclude, noting that roughly half of employees do some work in their free time to meet the demands of their job. "While many Americans regularly adjust their personal schedules to accommodate work matters, many are unable to adjust their work schedules to accommodate personal matters."

Maestas wonders whether toxic working conditions are keeping Americans out of the labor force. The percentage of Americans who are working or looking for work -- 62.9 percent in July -- has not returned to prerecession levels and is well below its 2000 peak of 67.3 percent.

The unemployment rate is at a 16-year low, and many employers complain they can't fill jobs. "There's a message for employers here," Maestas said. "Working conditions really do matter."

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Source: RAND Corporation

Not everything about American workplaces is grim. Workers enjoy considerable autonomy: More than 80 percent say they get to solve problems and try out their own ideas. Moreover, 58 percent say their bosses are supportive, and 56 percent say they have good friends at work.

The first-time survey of Americans ages 25-71 was carried out in 2015. It's similar to a long-running European survey, and researchers plan to conduct another survey next year and eventually to draw comparisons between U.S. and European working conditions.