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UK – Job insecurity on the rise in the public sector

25 November 2013

A survey of how employment is changing shows that employment relations continue to be relatively good, despite the recession, reports the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). However there has been a marked rise in feelings of job insecurity in the public sector in Britain since the mid-2000s.

In 2004, employees in the private and public sectors gave similar ratings of their job security. However by 2011, public sector employees were much more likely to feel insecure in their jobs. The Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS) shows that there have been other changes in employees' job quality, but these have also tended to favour employees in the private sector.

While the private sector recovery gains pace, the Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting that public sector employment will fall by a further -20% by 2018. The lot of public sector workers is therefore unlikely to improve in the near future.

The proportion of all employees who viewed relations with their workplace managers as either ‘good’ or ‘very good’ was slightly higher in 2011 (64%) than in 2004 (62%), despite the challenging economic climate. However, the proportion of employees giving positive ratings was higher in the private sector than in the public sector in 2004 (64% versus 57%) and the gap widened in 2011 (67% versus 57%).

Back in 2004 there was no difference in perceived job security between public and private sector employees: roughly two-thirds agreed or strongly agreed their jobs were secure. In 2011 perceptions of job security in the private sector were at their previous level, despite the longest recession in living memory; but in the public sector perceived job security had plummeted so that fewer than half of public sector employees felt secure in their jobs. These trends fed through to employees' satisfaction with their job security.

The percentage of employees saying that their job requires them to work very hard rose in both the public and private sectors between 2004 and 2011. However, public sector employees were more likely to say that they never had enough time to get their work done.

Nevertheless the long-hours culture is more prevalent in the private sector, where more than two-fifths of employees believe that they have to work long hours in order to progress. 

While official statistics show that average wages have risen to a similar degree in the private and public sectors since the mid-2000s, WERS shows that public sector workers were more likely than those in the private sector to have recently experienced pay freezes or pay cuts. Almost half (49%) of public sector employees said that their pay had recently been frozen or cut, compared with only 26% in the private sector. 

Alex Bryson, Principal Research Fellow at NIESR and one of the co-authors of the report, said: "In our survey the biggest difference in working conditions in recent years relates to job security: perceptions of job security have declined markedly in the public sector since the mid-2000s.”

“Demands made of employees to work harder have increased in both sectors, but private sector employees have generally benefited from more supportive management. These differences partly reflect different employer responses to recession in the two sectors. But the continuing squeeze on public finances means it is likely that there will continue to be pressure on working conditions in the public sector for some time to come," he concluded. 

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