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Work intensification

The impact on workers and trade union strategies to tackle work intensification
Matt Creagh
Policy officer - employment rights
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

The TUC is the voice of Britain at work. We represent more than 5.5 million working people in 48 unions across the economy. We campaign for more and better jobs and a better working life for everyone, and we support trade unions to grow and thrive.

This report is a compilation of trade union case studies showing how ‘work intensification’ is a growing problem, across a number of sectors and occupations, with negative consequences for working people. The case studies give a real life perspective of how work intensification is affecting working people. They show how unions are negotiating with employers to come up with solutions to tackle work intensification.

What is work intensification?

Work intensification has been defined 1  as “the rate of physical and/or mental input to work tasks performed during the working day”. Work intensity comprises several elements, including the rate of task performance; the intensity of those tasks in terms of physical, cognitive, and emotional demands; the extent to which they are performed simultaneously or in sequence, continuously, or with interruptions; and the gaps between tasks. This report looks at the impact of workers having to pack more work into working hours and work spilling over into their private lives.

Is work intensifying?

Work is intensifying.

TUC polling 2  shows that a majority of workers (55 per cent) feel that work is getting more intense over time. Three out of five (61 per cent) workers polled felt exhausted at the end of each day.

Why is work intensification a problem?

High and rising work intensity matters because of its detrimental impact on health, safety and well-being.

A range of health effects are associated with intensive working practises, with long hours known to be a major cause of fatigue.

When workers are tired, or under excessive pressure, they are also more likely to suffer injury, or be involved in an accident. Fatigue results in slower reactions, reduced ability to process information, memory lapses, absent-mindedness, decreased awareness, lack of attention, underestimation of risk, reduced coordination etc.

Fatigue is said to cost the UK £115 - £240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone.3

Long term-ill health conditions caused by overwork include hypertension and cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, and long-term effects on the immune system, increasing risk of autoimmune disease diagnoses. It can even result in death: one study found that in 2016, 745,000 people worldwide died as a result of working long hours alone.4

How do people experience work intensification?

This report includes case studies, provided by several unions, across a range of sectors and occupations, showing how work intensification is affecting working people.

The examples show how and why working people think that work is intensifying. They highlight the impact that work intensification has on their health and well-being, the services they deliver and on their relationships with families and friends.

The case studies show many factors can cause work intensification. For example, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) highlights that staff shortages can lead to midwives working consecutive shifts. And the education union NASUWT shows how excessive scrutiny and oversight in the workplace can lead to work intensification because of the emotional demands placed on teachers.

Our report shows the ways unions are tackling this problem through collective bargaining strategies to tackle work intensification.

We also set out an action plan for government to safeguard workers against the effects of work intensification and stop the escalating recruitment and retention crisis in public services.

Download full report (PDF)

  • 1 Green, F. (2001). “It’s been a hard day’s night: The concentration and intensification of work in late twentieth-century Britain”. British Journal of Industrial Relations 39(1): 53–80.
  • 2 Nationally representative polling conducted by Thinks Insight & Strategy for TUC. 2,198 workers in England and Wales in August 2022.
  • 3 Human factors: Fatigue, Health and Safety Executive Website
  • 4 17 May 2021). “Long working hours increasing deaths from heart disease and stroke: WHO, ILO”. World Health Organization
1 – What is work intensification?

Work intensity, or work effort, is a measure of the physical or mental input an individual puts into their work.5

Work intensity comprises several elements, including the rate of task performance; the intensity of those tasks in terms of physical, cognitive, and emotional demands; the extent to which they are performed simultaneously or in sequence, continuously, or with interruptions; and the gaps between tasks.” 6

High work intensity is associated with high workload, working to tight deadlines and working at speed.7

Work intensification doesn’t just take place during contractual hours. It can also spill over into workers’ private lives.

The Eurofound 6th European Working Conditions Survey 8  identified 13 factors that could contribute towards work intensification:

Number of tasks and the speed at which it can be accomplished

  • Working at very high speed (three-quarters of the time or more)
  • Working to tight deadlines (three-quarters of the time or more)
  • Enough time to get the job done (never or rarely)
  • Frequent disruptive interruptions

Pace determinants and interdependency

  • Interdependency: three or more pace determinants
  • Work pace dependent on:
    • the work done by colleagues
    • direct demands from people such as customers, passengers, pupils, patients, etc.
    • numerical production targets or performance targets
    • automatic speed of a machine or movement of a product
    • the direct control of your boss
  • Emotional demands
  • Hiding your feelings at work (most of the time or always)
  • Handling angry clients, customers, patients, pupils, etc. (three-quarters of the time or more)
  • Being in situations that are emotionally disturbing (a quarter of the time or more)

This useful list shows that a wide range of factors can cause work intensification.

Our case studies show that other factors such as excessive employer oversight and lack of peer support can also lead to people feeling that work is becoming more intense. The NASUWT case study below looks at this further.

NASUWT reports that work intensification is a key concern for teachers, alongside declining real terms pay and a lack of support in managing poor pupil behaviour. Independent research also demonstrates that work intensification is a primary issue of concern for teachers. Work intensification has a detrimental impact on teachers’ well-being, with this being one of the key drivers for teachers leaving the profession.

Increasing workloads

The UK Office of Manpower Economics (OME), an independent organisation that provides impartial secretariat support to the independent Pay Review Bodies, carried out research to measure the impact of pay, rewards and other employment characteristics on the retention of teachers. At the core of the study was a quantitative survey conducted with teachers in England. The research followed a House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (2018) report that stated that the number of secondary school teachers has been falling since 2010 and the number of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement has been increasing since 2012. Coupled with the fact that the number of pupils is increasing, and is expected to keep increasing in the future, this has placed increased pressure on the supply of teachers (House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, 2018).

The key findings showed that:

  • workloads are significantly increasing for teachers and that this is having a serious impact on teacher retention
  • pay and rewards are important retention factors, but they are not the only factors that shape teachers’ retention choices
  • workplace characteristics (workload, school culture and teaching environment) are highly valued by teachers. Teachers would be willing to trade-off higher pay/rewards to work in supportive environments with fewer challenges from pupil behaviour
  • Respondents reported heavy workload. Nearly half of the sample stated they work 21 per cent to 50 per cent more than their contract hours and almost a third report working 51 per cent to 100 per cent more.

This finding is in line with previous evidence 9 , for instance by the Department for Education, that the workload associated with teaching is the biggest cause of retention issues.

Work intensification

NASUWT is keen to flag up the distinction between work intensification and increasing workloads.

Whilst there is undoubtedly an overlap, with increasing workloads contributing towards work intensification, teachers’ work has intensified in other ways which has led to negative impacts on their health and wellbeing. Teachers are under increasing levels of scrutiny and this new work dynamic leads to teachers working in a more intense environment.

NASUWT reports that teachers have lost a large degree of autonomy and professional agency. They are now subjected to a level of scrutiny and oversight that is debilitating. Examples include:

  • Excessive lesson observation, with teachers increasingly find their lessons observed. These are viewed as management checks on teacher performance and create a stressful environment for teachers to work in. Conducted appropriately, lesson observations have always had an important role to play in supporting professional classroom practice. However, they have increasingly been used solely to monitor and scrutinise the compliance of teachers with the expectations of employers. While lesson observations can provide information to support fair performance management processes, there is a need for practice to place much greater emphasis on their role in supporting professional development. 
  • ‘Book looks’ – employers pick out a sample of pupils’ exercise books and use these to make an assessment about the quality of the teacher’s work.
  • Planning of lessons are subject to checks from independent/internal auditors.
  • Pupil attainment figures are used to assess a teacher’s performance.

In 2006, the Government and trade unions through the former Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group (WAMG) agreed a more proportionate and development-focused approach to performance management. This approach, underpinned by regulations, ensured that the use of lesson observations and other such evidence was proportionate to need and was used as a means of informing professional reflection on professional practice. Critically, it involved teachers and leaders as active partners in their performance management and allowed them to identify their professional development needs and ensure that they were given support in working towards their career progression aspirations.

In 2012, the former Coalition Government removed most of the underpinnings of this supportive and developmental system. Instead, it encouraged an approach which shifted

the focus of performance management towards one focused narrowly on punitive scrutiny of teachers' and leaders' work. Instead of fostering professional dialogue about performance, it rendered formal appraisal in too many cases into an exercise in which teachers and leaders were required to provide evidence annually of their competence against crude checklists of performance. The hard links established between successful completion of this progress and access to pay progression served only to undermine further the positive potential of performance management to assist  teachers and leaders in developing their skills, enhancing their practice, and advancing their careers. 

A combination of these monitoring measures creates a stressful environment for teachers to work in.

Lack of peer support has contributed to work intensity

Teaching has become more isolated. Teachers used to be able to access peer support in communal areas such as staff rooms, to discuss work issues, de-stress and seek support from colleagues. Time constraints and lack of physical space to meet up has removed this vital support for teachers.

NASUWT raise an interesting point that the architecture of new schools often does not include space for a staff room. These are vital spaces where teachers can gather and de-stress, tackling the effects of work intensification.

There is OECD evidence that demonstrates the importance of collaboration and having an environment that fosters collegiality. The Teaching and Learning International Survey from 2018 10 says that “teachers who report engaging in professional collaboration with their peers on a regular basis also tend to report higher levels of self-efficacy (in all countries with available data), as well as higher levels of job satisfaction”.

Impact on teachers

The impact of work intensification and increasing workload on the teaching profession has been profound. The extent of these workload pressures is confirmed in the results of the most recent OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). 11  The survey found that teachers’ average working time remains at unsustainable levels. Primary teachers' average working hours were reported at 52.1 hours per week, with over a quarter of full-time secondary teachers subject to a working week of 60 hours or more. Recent DfE research 12  emphasises the importance of excessive workload as a factor in teachers' decisions to exit teaching. 

In the NASUWT’s annual survey of the state of the teacher and school leader workforce, The Big Question, many of the impacts of the decline in the quality of work were set out in stark terms. The survey showed that:

  • only 14 per cent of respondents said they would recommend teaching as a career
  • 73 per cent have seriously considered leaving their current job and 66 per cent have considered leaving the teaching profession altogether because of the unremitting pressures they are facing
  • 86 per cent agreed that they work too hard for too little reward
  • 63 per cent stated that they feel constantly evaluated and judged
  • 57 per cent agreed that they are held responsible for problems over which they have no control
  • only 28 per cent think that their professional judgement is respected in their school
  • 82 per cent have experienced more workplace stress while 81 per cent believe that the job has adversely affected their mental health
  • 83 per cent of teachers and leaders have experienced anxiety and 79 per cent said they lost sleep and
  • 52 per cent reported adverse mental health outcomes were the result of workload.

The role of OFSTED in tackling work intensification

In 2019 OFSTED launched an inspection framework that would pick up issues of workloads and well being. Because of the pandemic the new framework was not embedded into the system until September 2021.

OFSTED has identified 13  through its regular inspections, that workload and the impact on teacher is wellbeing is a serious problem. It has also identified that this is affecting the educational attainment of pupils.

NASUWT welcomed the framework but would like to see OFSTED doing more to ensure the validity and reliability of assessment around work intensification. NASUWT has disputed some of the findings.

NASUWT interventions

The NASUWT remains deeply concerned by the Government's failure to take sufficient action to address the causes and consequences of excessive workload. Nevertheless, it has been possible to make progress in some areas. For example, following representations made by trade unions, the Department for Education established the Teacher Workforce Advisory Group.

These groups, which drew together representatives from trade unions alongside educational specialists and practitioners, sought to identify and address practices in three of the principal drives of excessive and unnecessary teacher and leader workload: marking, lesson planning and the use of pupil performance data in assessment.

The outcomes of these reports, published in 2016, set out helpful guides to practice in these critical contributors to workload burdens. Copies of these reports can be accessed in the Reports from independent groups, a section of the Reducing school workload government webpage. 14  Their outcomes were endorsed by the DfE, Ofsted and the main teacher and leader unions. They were launched by the former Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, at the NASUWT's 2016 Annual Conference.

Where the recommendations set out in the reports have been adopted, they have assisted in addressing workload caused by poor approaches to marking, planning and assessment. However, the Government has failed to take more effective action to ensure their wider use. As a result, their impact on work intensification and excessive and unnecessary workload will remain marginal until this action is taken.
  • 5 Hunt, T. and Piackard H. (27 April 2022). “Harder, better, faster, stronger? Work intensity and ‘good work’ in the United Kingdom”, Industrial Relations Journal, volume 3, issue 53, pp. 189-206
  • 6 Ibid. 1
  • 7 Ibid. 5
  • 8  Parent-Thirion, A; Biletta, I; Cabrita, J; Vargas Llave, O; Vermeylen, G; Wilczyńska, A; Wilkens, M. (17 November 2016). “Sixth European Working Conditions Survey – Overview report”. Eurofound.
  • 9 March 2018). “Factors affecting teacher retention: qualitative investigation”. CooperGibson Research, Department for Education.
  • 10 2020).A Teachers' Guide to TALIS 2018: Volume II”. OECD.
  • 11 Jerrim, J; Sims, S. (June 2019). “The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018 Research report”. UCL, Institute of Education.
  • 12 September 2017). “Analysis of school and teacher level factors relating to teacher supply". Department for Education.
  • 13 22 July 2019). “Summary and recommendations: teacher well-being research report”. OFSTED.
  • 14 15 June 2023). “Reducing school workload”. Government website.
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