Psychosocial issues in the service sector

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Kevin Teoh, Ceri Jones and Juliet Hassard, Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom.


Most advanced economies have over the past few decades seen a shift away from industry based employment structure towards service-based sectors instead [1]. This article examines the key psychosocial hazards for the service sector. In addition, it examines the key psychosocial hazards and issues facing by the less commonly examined sub-sectors/ industries included in the service sector, namely: transportation, retail, banking and finance, and postal and telecommunication. A commentary of prevention and management interventions for psychosocial risks is discussed, and examples drawn on from within this sector are included.

What is the service sector?

This sector provides services to the general population and to businesses. It includes the provision of time and knowledge during which products (including advice, access, attention, discussion, experience) and other services are provided [2]. The service sector is reliant more on human capital and less on natural capital. Activities associated with this sector, include: retail and wholesale sales, transportation and distribution, hospitality and tourism, banking and insurance, healthcare, and public services.

Key statistics in the service sector

The statistics on the service sector demonstrate its importance in supporting economies and generating jobs. In 2005, it provided 76 million jobs in Europe and generated 11,974 billion EUR in turnover [3]. It is estimated that the service sector accounts for 75% of the EU’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and approximately 50% in developing countries [4]. The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) highlights the importance of the service sector as a key generator of jobs at a European level, with an estimated 45% of workers in the EU-27 employed in this sector [5]. The wholesale, retail and accommodation sub-sectors had the most workers (17%), followed by healthcare (10%), public administration (8%), transport (7%), and financial services (3%).

Psychosocial risks in the service sector

The diverse nature of the sub-sectors and industries within the service sector means that employees are typically exposed to diverse working conditions and different psychosocial hazards. However, the Fifth European Working Condition Survey (EWCS) [5] revealed that there were some similarities in working conditions within the service sector, and, moreover, some commonly experienced psychosocial issues. The current section aims to outline these commonly observed and experienced psychosocial issues in the service sector.

A key aspect and defining component of the service industry is its reliance on the interaction with customers, clients and patients [6]. Work in the service sector is going along with the expectation from society to show a high level of customer service (towards customers, patients or clients) which includes courtesy and friendliness in service workers. Service sector staff, therefore, are often expected to demonstrate a subordinate role to the customer, where importance is placed on customer satisfaction and these workers are pressured to meet the needs and desires of their customers. Consequently, this may place them in a position where they have difficulty leaving an undesired situation or disagreeing with a customer [7]. For example, Guerrier and Adib [8] describe a situation where a female hotel employee was dimissed after slapping a male customer who had harassed her, or where management had been reluctant to support a staff member who had been racially abused as it involved a high spending customer.

This is evident in the Fifth EWCS that also looked at workers having to repress their true feelings in order to interact with clients or accomplish tasks. On average, both men and women felt they had to repress their true feelings in all service sub-sectors more than the non-service sectors [5], with the exception of the financial services. For the service sub-sectors, between 24-41% of men and 31-37% of women felt they had to repress their feelings, while for the non-service sectors these ranged from 12-23% and 9-31% respectively.

Workers in the service sector also experience more adverse social behaviours. Some examples of typical working conditions for many service sector employees include:

  • providing face-to-face service to members of the public (e.g. customer service personal within the transportation sector);
  • handling cash transactions in one form or another (e.g. cashiers within retail stores);
  • providing services early in the morning or late at night (e.g. taxi drivers who work long hours);
  • employing staff who work alone or in small numbers (e.g. ticket inspectors who work alone on trains); and
  • being located in disadvantaged areas (e.g. postal and telecommunication workers who work alone in remote locations).

This is supported in the findings from the Fifth EWCS that show that all the service sub-sectors experienced more adverse social behaviour (between 14-29% of men, 16-22% of women), than the EU-27 average (14% for men, 15% for women). Adverse social behaviour include suffering verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, threats or humiliating behaviour, physical violence, bullying and harassment, and sexual attention. In terms of physical violence , transport (2.5%) and public administration (4.4%) had more percentage of workers than the EU-27 average (1.9%) reporting that they had been subject to a violent act. For bullying and harassment, 4.1% of the EU workforce reported being subject to it in the previous 12 months, which is lower than those reported in transport (5.6%), financial (4.3%), wholesale and retail (4.1%), and public administration (4.9%) sectors. This is in part due to many service sector workers being involved in workplace conditions that make them more susceptible to violence [6].

However, despite being part of the service sector, there are also crucial differences between each sub-sector in relation to psychosocial working conditions For example in terms of role clarity, the Fifth EWCS [5] showed that the number of financial workers who felt they did not know what was expected of them at work, was higher (8.1%) than when compared with remaining service sub-sectors (wholesale, retail and accommodation, healthcare, public administration, transport), which had rates of between 4.2 and 6.2%. In terms of perceived employability, 22% of public administration workers felt they could easily find a comparable job, while this increased to 42% in the healthcare sector. In terms of having good career advancement prospects, figures ranged from 23% (transport) to 51% (financial services). Specific psychosocial working conditions in public administration, healthcare, and hotel and restaurants have been covered in other articles, and consequently, the following sections will outline and discuss psychosocial risks in service sub-sectors such as transportation, financial and banking, postal and telecommunication, and retail sectors.

Transport sector

The transportation sector encompasses a range of transportation forms, including cars, airlines, trains, trucks, and ships. As well as encompassing various job roles, such as: taxi drivers, ticket conductors, customer service representatives and flight attendants. In general, these workers in particular are exposed to higher work intensity, lower social support and increase exposure to adverse social behaviour than most other sectors and other service-subsectors [5].

The Fifth EWCS revealed that when compared to all other sectors, workers in the transport sector had the second highest prevalence of job dissatisfaction (20%) with their working conditions [5]. The same survey revealed these workers have the second highest levels of work intensity and the second lowest levels of autonomy amongst all sectors. Workers in this industry report problems such as having to work long hours, being understaffed, time pressures, dealing with difficult members of the public, and poor equipment [5] [6] [9] [10] that contribute to a deterioration in the quality of the psychosocial work environment. Furthermore, accidents and suicides on the road and rail network can be a traumatic and stressful experience for exposed drivers and transport staff [6] [11]. These risks are exacerbated by a general lack of social support and the highest prevalence of workers working alone [5]. Ultimately the increased exposure to variety of psychosocial risks, with the lack of social support can lead to health issues, evident by the 24% of men and 23% of women in the transport sector having their mental health at risk, which is the second highest prevalence amongst all sectors in the Fifth EWCS.

Workers in the transport sector are especially vulnerable to violent and harrasing behaviours at work. Their tasks typically include: the provision of information to and the supervision of members of the travelling public; the control of tickets; and the prevention of vandalism and violent behaviour [6]. Such behaviours from passengers may be triggered or exacerbated by passengers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, delays, lack of information, poor environmental conditions (e.g., poor lighting, a lack of fresh air supply), and a failure to meet clients’ expectations [12]. Moreover, staff on long distant flights and rail journeys may face added risk due to the prolonged exposure they have with passengers, and the lack of options to withdraw from the situation [6]. The Fifth EWCS [5] showed that 20% of transport workers were subjected to adverse social behaviour in the previous 12 months: which was the second highest amongst all sectors. The same survey revealed that this sector had the highest percentage of workers working alone (49%), making them even more vulnerable to violence and harassment. Data from the National Crime Victimisation Survey in the United States also shows that workers in transport are robbed at a higher rate than those in other sectors [6].


A large number of retailers are operating in markets that are increasingly characterized by intense competition, decreased store loyalty and expanding price pressures. Despite this they still have to focus on providing excellent customer service [13]. Consequently the retail sector is characterised by part-time, weekend work, and increasing use of shift working to cover extended opening hours, with a high staff turnover [14]. This is evident in the Fourth EWCS [15], which showed the wholesale and retail sector to have highest percentages (14%) of of fixed-term contracts, and staff turnover (12% within a year). And despite the same survey showing that the working hours of wholesale and retail employees are equal to the EU average, they have among the highest percentage of evening and weekend shift working.

The Fourth EWCS [15] further revealed that retail workers have less autonomy than workers in other sectors, with their work roles being less complex.. Moreover, workers in this area consist of mostly unskilled or semi-skilled workers. The lack of autonomy partially stems from retail workers often being limited by organisational guideline procedures. However, they are still expected by the customers to go the extra mile in order to deliver excellent customer service. This can sometimes lead to aggression and conflict from the customer and can lead to stress in the retail worker. The Fifth EWCS [5] showed that a slightly higher percentage of retail workers (11.2%) reported being verbally abused than the average (10.7%).

Banking and finance sector

The recent global economic crisis had significant ramifications for this industry, leading to many organisational changes [16] [17]. The 5th EWCS from 2010 [5] showed that the 68% of workers in this industry had experienced organisational change in the form of new process/ technology and restructuring/ organisation during the previous three years. This figure was the highest amongst all sectors. These economic and organisational changes have implications for how employable financial sector employees see themselves, with the Fifth EWCS [5] showing that 19% of these employees were not confident of being able to find a job with similar pay, in comparison the three most confident sectors had between 38-42% who felt they could obtain a job with similar pay. The economic crisis has seen this industry receive increasing negatively perceptions by society. Consequently, this can affect how employees in the banking sector perceive their own work, as evident through it having the smallest proportion of employees feeling as though their work was useful.

The Fifth EWCS [5] also showed that the workers in the financial sector have one of the largest numbers of employees reporting an increase in working hours from the previous year. Additionally, this sector has the highest prevalence of employees working on tight deadlines (65%), not knowing what was expected of them (8.2%), having complex tasks (74%) and not having enough time to complete their tasks (38%). Financial sector workers also had the highest number of employees indicating that they needed more training to cope with the demands of their job (21%). A study among financial services workers showed that Long working hours is associated with a lack of physical activity, which is detrimental to worker work health [18]. Recent research studies have shown a link between stress or psychosocial hazards with poorer health amongst bank employees [18] [19] [20].

Postal and telecommunication

As postal and telecommunication companies seek to remain competitive they are diversifying the services that they offer, which may include: financial and insurance services; issuing and renewing of documents (i.e. drivers licenses); and utilities payments [21] [22]. These extra responsibilities place even more demands on employees working in the postal and telecommunication services [22]. This is compounded by the additional vigilance they need to place towards suspect (i.e. contraband, incendiary devices) and valuable packages [23]. They face additional pressure to deliver packages and services on time, despite, for example, adverse weather conditions [22]. Furthermore, postal and telecommunication workers also face aggression from the public, which can occur at over the counter services or on delivery routes. The latter is of particular concern where workers frequently work on their own, and in neighbourhoods or buildings where they might have little control in [19]. For example, the Royal Mail in the United Kingdom recorded 3251 dog related attacks/incidents in 2011 [24]. The increased demand and the need to adhere to policy and routine leave little autonomy and control to postal and telecommunication workers [23]; all of which are psychosocial hazards for these workers.

Call centre workers are a sub-group of workers in this sector whose psychosocial hazards have been extensively studied [25] The evidence indicates that call centre workers frequently work long unsociable hours, have heavy time demands, little control over their work pace or structure, low complexity tasks and unclear job roles [26] [27] [28] [25]. The exposure to these risks is concerning as calculations by Chevalier and colleagues [27] using data from over 2,000 French call centre workers has shown that those with inadequate breaks were twice as likely to have high job strain. Spending more than 75% of the time handling calls increases the risk of job strain 5.9 times; frequent abuse from customers increased the risk of job strain 1.8 times, and low perceived quality of work also increased the likelihood of having high job strain (By 2.4 times). Another survey of 28 call centres in Sweden found that providing more complex tasks is related to lower stress levels and better psychosocial conditions [26]. The same study also showed that when call centre workers reported more stress and less energy when they were exposed to low social and supervisor support, low decision latitude and high time demands. Similarly, a review by Sprigg, Smith and Jackson [25] found that call centre workers who worked in large call centres (more than 50 people), had strict scripts, had their performance constantly assessed and had permanent contracts, also had lower wellbeing than those who were not exposed to these conditions.

Health outcomes

With regards to health outcomes, data from the Fifth EWCS show varying results for different subsectors [5]. In terms of health, in the EU, on average 22% of workers reported suffering from poor health, with those in the transport (26% for men, 24% for women) and public adminstration (21% for men, 24% for women) sector reporting a higher prevalance than the average. With regards to mental health, only the transport sector had a higher prevelance (24% for men, 23% for women) than the EU average (20%); with retail and accomodation and public administration having simlar rates to the average. Both health (26% men, 28% women) and transport sectors (35% men, 22% women) had higher than average (25%) prevelance rates of workers who felt that work negatively affected their health, with retail and accomodation, finance and public administration having lower rates. Finally, the healthcare (21% of men, 29% of women), public administration (28% men, 30% women), and the transport (26% men, 28% women) sectors have higher than average (23%) rates of workers who were absent for more than five days due to health reasons.

Psychosocial risk management interventions

Before any psychosocial intervention programme is conducted, a risk assessment should be conducted to correctly identify the psychosocial hazards present in the workplace [29]. Identified risks can then be addressed using a two-prong approach by making changes at, first of all, company level, and second, if needed, individual level, with a strong focus on prevention. As most psychosocial hazards in the service sectors are not unique to this sector, more specific information on psychosocial risk management can be obtained elsewhere. Consequently the sections below present preventative strategies, and examples specific to the service industry. Interventions relevant to the healthcare, public administration, and the hotel and restaurant sectors sectors are also presented and discussed in other articles.

Risk assessments

Ensuring that a risk assessment is conducted is part of the employer’s obligation under OSH Framework Directive (89/391/EEC) [30]. Information on tools and methods used for effective risk assessment has been presented in the article on risk assessment. The size of the group and the nature of the work in the organisation need to be taken into consideration when selecting these tools. Risk assessments should always be carried out within a specific and defined group, and based on reliable data and information. Employers should work together with employees during the risk assessment process, and management support is essential for making positive change. Examples of the tools for risk assessments within the service sector, include:

  • Postal workers completing walking risk assessments that identify any threatening risks such as violent neighbourhoods and aggressive dogs [24]
  • A guidance risk assessment tool specific for workers being involved in transport of goods, provided by the EU Committee of Senior Labour Inspectors [31]
  • Risk assessment tools for workers in water transport [32] and taxi drivers [33] are available from the EU-OSHA database.

When conducting risk assessments, organisations should be aware that there are also specific EU/national level policies that have been implemented to address some of the working conditions faced by employees in the service sector. For example, the European Parliament’s Directive 2002/15/EC were passed to organise the working time of drivers of mobile road transport activities [34]. Similarly, a number of European countries (i.e. Belgium, Switzerland, United Kingdom) have passed national legislation protecting public transport workers from aggressive or anti-social behaviour [35] [36].

Primary interventions

Addressing psychosocial hazards should be based on implementing preventative measures. This means focusing on policies, work practices and programmes that seek to prevent or reduce the actual psychosocial hazards identified in the risk assessment. For example, adjusting shift length based on workload, and a reduction in night shifts might alleviate stressors faced by call centre workers in the telecommunication sector, thereby enhancing their health and well-being [37]. Within the banking and financial sector, increasing staff numbers or revising workload based on staff numbers, adjusting performance targets, and developing flatter management structures are possible organisational changes that can be made to address heavy workloads and poor management structures in the workplace [18].

These measures can also include physical changes in the work environment, which are particularly appropriate in addressing violence and aggressive behaviour. These can include the inclusion of security hardware, video recording and lighting to protect workers from such behaviour [6]. Some examples of implemented solutions in the service sector are inclusion of panic buttons for taxi drivers [6], or the UK police initiative of providing DNA-kits to London transport workers to collect aggressors’ spit in order to facilitate prosecution [38], and the prevalent use of video recording in public transport and retail space across Europe [39].

Secondary interventions

Secondary measures focus on enhancing workers’ capability and resources to cope with psychosocial hazards they come into contact with. For example, Villani and colleagues [40] found that developing resilience through stress management training delivered by mobile phones to a sample of Italian oncology nurses’, resulted in better copingcoping and reduced anxiety compared to those who did not undergo the training; in order to improved postal workers skills and help them cope with the additional demands. In terms of violence, the London Underground and the Dutch railways are some examples of public transportation companies that run specific training to equip their employees in dealing with aggression and violence from the public [6] [41]. These include discussions and role plays on identifying potential triggers of violence and defusing threatening situations.


The articles presents specific psychosocial risks in the service sector, focusing on sub-sectors such as retail, transport, banking and finance and the postal and telecommunication sectors. Although there is not as much research literature available as for other sectors, it has been demonstrated that the most prevalent psychosocial hazards in these sub-sectors include: high quantitative demands (workload), high client/customer/patient demands (including violence and harassment), low control, low rewards, low support and interpersonal conflict (bullying and harassment). In order to address these hazards, they first have to be identified through the risk assessment. Whilst primary prevention (eliminating risks) is recommended, in some cases this might not be possible. When this is the case secondary interventions that seek to equip workers the resources to cope with the stressors in the workplace can be implemented.


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Links for further reading

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, How to tackle psychosocial issues and reduce work-related stress, 2002. Available at: [24]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Prevention of psychosocial risks and stress at work in practice, 2002. Available at: [25]

Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Rise in psychosocial risk factors at the workplace, 2009. Available at: [26]