What members say about work

Earlier this year, nearly 16,000 PSA members took part in a survey about their experience of work – the demands, the obstacles, the rewards and satisfactions.

The survey was developed by Victoria University School of Management. All members for whom we have email addresses were invited to take part in the survey. Almost a third did so.

Workplace Dynamics in New Zealand in Public Services is the report of the survey findings. It paints a picture of a public sector that is adequate and even good in some respects, but not in others. Despite some strengths, there is much to be done to improve public sector workplaces.

These pages provide a snapshot of the findings. The PSA thanks all those members who took part in this survey for the valuable insights they have provided.


Who we are

Your typical PSA member is a Pākeha woman, aged 48 and married. She has a tertiary qualification, works full-time in administration or one of the professions, and is paid above the average wage. She is highly motivated and wants to make a difference in society.

There’s a good chance she has caring responsibilities for a child or an ageing parent, and she does voluntary work in the community.

Of course, this is a statistical average which disguises the diversity of the PSA’s membership. For instance, more than 10,000, about 17 percent, of members are under 35 years. Nearly 16 percent are Māori, a higher percentage than in the population as a whole.

PSA members are more highly educated than the national average. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents continued their education after leaving school, and nearly half hold a university degree or post-graduate qualification.

Almost all PSA members are active in their community in one way or another – whether it’s volunteering to help with children’s sports, taking part in cultural and educational activities, or being involved in a religious setting.


Working hours 

Given this profile, it can be no surprise that there is a strong demand for more flexibility round hours of work. Nearly a third of members have caring responsibilities for a child, for instance, while others want to cut back their hours as part of preparing for retirement, or have the space to pursue personal interests.  

Whatever the reason, most see the need for a healthy balance between work and home. Only about 20 percent of respondents show no interest in more flexible hours.

Half of the members who responded have some flexibility around their hours of work but up to 30 percent of members have virtually none. Others may have flexibility in theory but work pressure prevents them using it. 

A glaring contradiction to come out of the survey is that women are far less likely to have flexible hours than men (72 percent compared to 29 percent), yet are far more likely to have the main caring responsibilities for children and other family members (68 percent compared to 32 percent).


Job demands

Work pressure is a problem that needs to be dealt with. While nearly half of respondents are satisfied with their workload, more than half work extra hours without being paid for them.

The survey report points to research showing that “unpaid working conditions have been known to poorly influence both the health and psychological well-being of workers”.

Most members find their work to be intellectually demanding, even when it involves repetitive tasks. There is usually a need to meet precise quality standards and solve unforeseen problems. The pace of work is heavily influenced by demands from people outside the organisation, although colleagues, managers and performance targets all exert an influence.


Job satisfaction

People spend a lot time at work so job satisfaction plays a big part in their quality of life. It also has implications for employers as it affects staff turnover, absenteeism, motivation and productivity.

The survey found that most members like their job, are highly motivated and, almost without exception, put in their best effort “regardless of the difficulties”. This level of commitment is an encouraging finding.

The survey also explored what it is that drives this commitment. For a resounding 90 percent, it’s a desire to make a positive difference to society. This overrides the level of commitment to their organisation.  


Safety and security

Feeling insecure in your job is harmful. While most feel reasonably secure, a meaningful 17 percent feel their job is at risk and they could soon find themselves unemployed. They worry they will not get a similar job and salary elsewhere.

Workplace bullying places enormous stress on victims. A worrying third of respondents report being bullied in the last six months. This is similar to findings in the State Services Commission’s Integrity and Conduct Survey. International research shows the public sector work environment is particularly prone to bullying.

Another disturbing finding is the reported rate of discrimination. Around 30 percent feel they are treated less favourably because of a particular characteristic. The main reasons cited are employment status (whether part-time or casual), closely followed by age, then ethnicity and gender.


Support to do a good job

Members were asked if they are supported in doing their jobs well. For instance, do they know what’s expected of them; can they make the decisions about their work; do they have the skills and training they need; and are they fairly rewarded?

The answers tend to be ambivalent about the extent to which work and employment practices help them do their job.

Managers are widely seen as poor at creating a climate to improve performance. Decisions are seen to be more about politics than evidence, and there is an unwillingness or inability to take prudent risks. Workers are generally not encouraged to challenge poor practices, nor do they have much say in decisions that affect them.

Access to knowledge, for instance through training and development, was rated more positively although there is some concern with the quality of training.

Performance appraisal and reward processes lack credibility and incentives to work well are rated as weak.


Co-operation and innovation

Most members – up to three-quarters – reported that communication and coo-operation across their organisation is not good. The survey report notes this may inhibit performance and the ability to learn from mistakes and make changes.   

A third of members see their organisation as reasonably innovative, though they are less positive about its ability to handle change well. Poor communication and co-operation may be an obstacle to capitalising on innovation.

Work responsibilities, procedures and policies are generally seen as clear and well-defined, though how efficient they are was viewed less positively.


In conclusion

The report notes that public sector workplaces are squeezed between funding shortfalls, rising and more complex demands, and a less stable environment, all of which have consequences and place additional strains on workers and systems.  

One of the most telling findings is that management systems are stifling fresh thinking and ways to improve performance by failing to take on board workers’ ideas and concerns. The hierarchy and control model that has come to dominate public management is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was, and will be incapable of meeting future demands in an increasingly complex world.


This article is from the December 2013 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.