Psychosocial issues in public administration

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Robert Gründler and Marlen Cosmar, DGUV, Germany.


In the following article challenges facing the public administration and their effects are described, with a concentrated focus on psychosocial issues. The effects of task requirements, work equipment, physical work environment, social work environment and social factors will be highlighted and, in turn, discussed.

Definition and key concepts

There are several definitions of “public administration” based on the different structures in each European state. In general, public administration includes legislative activities, taxation, national defence, public order and safety, immigration services, foreign affairs and international assistance, and the administration of government programmes are activities that are purely governmental in nature [1]. In 2012, an estimated seven per cent of the working population in EU-27 countries was employed in public administration [2].

Scale of the problem

In 2007, 13.8 per cent of people working in public administration in the EU-27 reported one or more work-related health problems in the past 12 months. The reported average of work-related health problems across all occupational sectors was 12.8 per cent, with the highest value found in agriculture, hunting and forestry (25.9 per cent) and the lowest values in real estate, renting and business activities (9.5 per cent). In France, 48.8 per cent of the employees in public administration reported one or more work-related health problems in the past 12 months, with the lowest rates found in Luxembourg (3.8 per cent) and Ireland (3.0 per cent) [3]. Research has also shown that work-related psychosocial issues are associated with different health aspects, such as: temporary mood changes [4], psychosomatic complaints [3], and diseases (e.g. cardiovascular diseases) [5] [6]. In 2009, an estimated 25 per cent of all work-related health problems in the public administration sector in the EU-27 can be traced to issues associated with stress, anxiety and depression; and about 33 per cent of all European workers in this sector felt exposed to one or more factors adversely affecting their mental well-being, which is slightly above the overall average (27 per cent) [7]. In all occupational sectors in Germany the percentage of mental health disorders related to the total sickness rate increased from 12.1 per cent in 2010 to 13.4 per cent in 2011 [8]. For “Public and Private Services” in Germany (which contains social work and public administration, as well as several other job groups) an estimated 22.8 million days are lost per year due to psychosocial disorders. In addition, this is thought to cost this occupational sector an estimated 2.03 billion Euros in loss of production, and a further 2.51 billion Euros due to loss of gross value in Germany [9].

As Edwards and Webster [10] showed stress-related employee absence is higher in the public than in the private sector in the United Kingdom. A Bulgarian study, conducted by the Ministry of State Administration and Administrative Reform, has shown that almost three quarters of interviewed civil servants indicated that their job stress levels were either very high (22.5 per cent) or high (50.7 per cent) [11]. The fifth European Survey on Working Conditions [12] has shown that the absence from work due to health reasons was the highest amongst men in public administration (48 per cent).

Key psychosocial concerns in Public Administration and their impact on health and safety

In the following sections, central issues in relation to work-related psychosocial issues in public administration will be discussed in more detail.


Task requirements include all factors related to job content and control, workload and work schedule (e.g. shift work), irregular work schedules, role ambiguity and lack of stimulating work. The fourth European Survey on Working Conditions [13] illustrates positive and negative aspects of tasks in public administration. On the basis of the Karasek job stress model, public administration can be characterised as a low-strain work organisation, with an above average level of job autonomy and a below average level of work intensity [13]. More than in other sectors, it is possible to learn new things (77.8 per cent) and solve unforeseen problems on your own (83.6 per cent). However other figures reflecting psychosocial working conditions in administration can be seen less positive, even if they still indicate better conditions compared to other sectors. For example 42.8 per cent of the employees in public administration characterise their tasks as monotonous. Better figures are shown for short repetitive task, which are indicated by 20.1 per cent of employees in public administration. Agriculture, wholesale, retail, and public administration report lower than average levels for the practice of self-assessment of quality (67.1 per cent) and meeting quality standards (67.4 per cent).

The fifth European Survey on Working Conditions [12] has shown that the regularity of working hours can be found most often in industry and public administration sectors. More specifically, on-call work is undertaken in public administration and defence (24 per cent). The fifth European Working Conditions Survey [12] has shown that possibilities for task rotation are below average in public administration, whilst complex tasks are relatively common for workers the public administration and defence sectors (69 per cent). In addition, 24 per cent of workers in public administration report of having enough time to get the job done [12].

Work equipment and physical work environment

The work equipment and physical work environment have a strong influence on the design of work tasks and can also influence psychosocial issues [14]. For example, a low physical variety due to bad physical work environment causes monotony and satiation [15].

The fourth European Survey on Working Conditions [13] has shown that 69.4 per cent of employees in public administration work with a computer. Other factors of physical work environment, such as low or high temperature and noise, have below-average values in this sector. The data of the fourth European Survey on Working Conditions [13] demonstrate that 51.3 per cent of administrative staff experience constant repetitive movements. Possible consequences manifest in high tension, physical complaints in neck, shoulders and back, in circulatory disorders in the legs and complaints in hands and arms [4]. Particularly, high burden arises when there are unfavourable lighting conditions or annoying blinding [16].

Social work environment

The social work environment contains relationships with colleagues, superiors and clients or customers. The fourth European Survey on Working Conditions [13] illustrates several aspects of the social work environment observed among European workers in public administration: 93.5 per cent of employees reported getting support from their colleagues, 84.5 per cent support from of their superiors, and an estimated 56.8 per cent external support (e.g. from family or friends). These three values are all above average and indicate compared to other sectors a positive tendency in public administration.

Hiding or suppressing feelings can result in psychological strain. The fifth European Survey on Working Conditions [12] has shown large differences between sectors, with only a small percentage of workers in agriculture reporting having to hide their feelings (12 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women) compared with a fairly large proportion of workers in the health care sector (41 per cent of men and 37 per cent of women). In public administration, the proportion of workers reporting hiding their feelings was relatively high with an estimated 30 per cent for men and 34 per cent for women.

The risk of experiencing violence is highest in education (11.9 per cent), health care sector (16.4 per cent), and in public administration sector (11.3 per cent). Public-sector workers are more than twice as likely to have been subjected to threats of violence or actual violence as those in the private sector. One reason may be the high level of interaction with external people. Around 50 per cent of the public-sector workers reported that their job involves dealing at least three quarters of the time with customers, students, patients, etc. compared to just 38 per cent of private sector workers [13].

An estimated 1.3 per cent of workers in public administration report unwanted sexual attention and 2.6 per cent of them report age discrimination [13]. Results from the fifth European Working Conditions Survey [12] show that approximately 17 per cent of all workers in public administration were subject to adverse social behaviour, and 6 per cent reported having experienced bullying or harassment (compared to 4% of those working in private sector) [13].

Organisational change and societal aspects

The fifth European Survey on Working Conditions [12] has shown that financial services, industry, health, transport, and public administration and defense are the sectors where the largest proportion of workers report having been exposed to organizational change during the previous three years. The fourth European Survey on Working Conditions [13] has shown that the dependence on direct demands of customers or clients is below average in public administration sector (61.7 per cent). This indicates that the fit between demands of customers or clients and working procedures is worse than in other sectors.

Levels of job and employment security and the prospects of career advancement vary between sectors. Workers in public administration report the highest levels of job security (an estimated 90%) in comparison to other occupational sectors [12]. Around 9 per cent of workers report that their work ‘always’ or ‘most of the time’ involves carrying out tasks that conflict with their personal values. The variation between sectors is not large, but value conflicts appear to be most prevalent in construction and least prevalent in industry and education [12]. It is also important to note, that transport and public administration sectors have high levels of employee representation, with two-third or more of employees reporting having some sort of employee representation [12].

Implications for workplace practices and policies

Regarding the situation in the public administration described above, implications for workplace practices and policies are presented. The OSH framework directive introduces the principle of risk assessment and defines its key elements (e.g. hazard identification, worker participation, introduction of adequate measures with the priority of eliminating risk at source, documentation and periodical re-assessment of workplace hazards). Practical experience shows that such approaches may be developed best in workshops that include employees employee participation and/ or their representatives [17]. These aspects of measurements can be divided into primary, secondary and tertiary prevention:

Primary Prevention

Primary prevention interventions include reducing physical-environmental and psychosocial conditions conducive to stress and strengthening organizational resources (social support, and control) [18]. According to Jane-Llopis and colleagues [19] the following aspects are included:

  • identification of workplace risk factors;
  • the use of organisational measures to reduce the identified risks;
  • the development of a workplace culture/ environment conducive to workers’ health and wellbeing;
  • flexible working hours and support for daily life challenges (e.g., access to child care); and
  • job modification and career development

The overall goal of primary prevention is to avoid the impairing effects mentioned above. Specific design guidelines for measures of prevention should take into account the effects, which are intended to influence fatigue, monotony, vigilance or satiation [20].

An example for the introduction of primary prevention measures can be seen in Germany, in concrete in Berlin’s public administration [21]. where “health circles” were implemented. “Health circles” are small groups of an organisational unit that are moderated by qualified anchor-men. In addition, management seminars (e.g. on communication and conflict management) were offered. After half a year, 50 per cent of the suggestions for improvement created by the “health circles” were implemented. The employees perceived positive changes of their working situation. The suggestions for improvement also had positive impact on the working satisfaction. In 2000, there was no further increase of the sick leave and in 2001 even a slight decline was noticed.

Secondary Prevention

Secondary prevention addresses those workers that show first signs of negative health implications. Its aim is to prevent exacerbation of the symptoms. In contrast to primary prevention, secondary preventive measures concentrate on individuals and their specific job situation. When a worker shows first signs of an illness, responsible persons in the organization have to ascertain if work demands are related to the health problems or if the individual skills of the worker may be enhanced [22]. As a result either demands need to be changed (e.g. organizational changes or changes in task distribution) or employees need to be strengthened in their resources to be able to deal with the demands. According to Jane-Llopis and colleagues [19] the following aspects are included:

  • the use of multi-component wellbeing programmes (for example, including physical exercise programmes in MHP programmes);
  • training and awareness raising measures on mental health issues for managers as well as employees; and
  • the early identification of stress and mental ill-health and enhanced care management.

Pro mente Oberösterreich is a social service provider which supports mentally handicapped and impaired persons in Upper Austria. Due to the alarming results of an employee attitude survey within pro mente Oberösterreich, the mental health promotion project “VIVA” was launched. The mental health promotion project “VIVA” involved measures aiming at the structure of work as well as at the personal health behaviour of the employees at Pro mente (e.g. leadership and management skills, team spirit, first aid, psychosocial health, mental hygiene, time/stress management, burnout, substance/alcohol abuse) [23].

Tertiary prevention

Finally, tertiary prevention focuses on employee assistance [22]. The goal is to heal those who have suffered long-term negative effects associated with work [18]. It is also important to avoid further impairing effects. In the context of occupational integration management demands are adapted to individual abilities. Nevertheless at this point poor health and well-being is already associated and lower productivity and increased sickness absence need to be expected. According to Jane-Llopis and colleagues [19] the following aspects are included:

  • free psychological counselling and specific psychological support; and
  • occupational integration management.

Dundee City Council (UK) seeks to improve the psychological and physical health of the employees of the Social Work Department by employees counseling service. A staff support officer was recruited to champion and promote the service to all employees. The early results showed that the service enhanced the psychological wellbeing, moral and physical health of the employees of the Social Work Department. The results of these evaluations have further shaped the service and it also reduced sickness absence and staff turnover [24].

Occupational health management

To integrate all these prevention activities, occupational health management is a possibility, which is in Europe more applied in public administration than in private sector [21]. Occupational health management is the design, control and development of structures and processes that make tasks, work organization and workplace behavior beneficial for worker’s health [25]. To implement an occupational health management it is important that:

Occupational health management should focus on optimal working conditions that support health and meaningfulness of goals of workers. Further key elements in this approach are the social network of the employees (not only among themselves but also with customers and suppliers); the presence of mutual accepted values, attitudes and binding rules; and mutual trust, transparency and support. The existence of these factors prevents misunderstandings and mistakes, or at least reduces them. In addition, the collective performance will be strengthened. Table 1 provides some examples of activities in the context of company health management [26].

Table 1. Examples of activities in the context of company health management

Examples for behaviour oriented prevention Examples for structural prevention
  • competences to work constructively with conflicts
  • relaxation techniques
  • individual time management
  • establish a code of conduct
  • implement flexible working time models
  • healthier food in the cafeterias
  • implement health circles

Source: Uhle, T. & Treier, M. (2011) [26]

Summary and conclusions

In summary, this article gives an overview of psychosocial issues in public administration concerning task, work equipment and physical work environment, social work environment and social factors. Main psychosocial issues in public administration can be observed to be: a lower flexibility for employees (e.g. working time); higher levels of constant repetitive movements; higher requirements of hiding or suppressing feelings; higher values of experiencing violence; and a faster organizational change than in other sectors. Job resources are an important factor to help employees to deal with job demands. They have to be adequate to the job demands (e.g. high job demands require high resources).The support of job resources is considered in primary, secondary and tertiary prevention programmes with the goal to balance job demands and job resources, resulting in healthy and productive work environment. Occupational health management is popular in public administration and integrates all primary, secondary and tertiary prevention activities in an organization.


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Links for further reading

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2002). Working on stress: Preventions of Psychosocial Risks and Stress at Work in Practice. Available at: [10]

European Foundation for Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (2007). Work-related stress. Avaiable at: [11]

Peters, B.G. & Pierre, J. (2003). Handbook of Public Administration. Sage Publications Limited, London.

Van der Hoek, P. M. (2005), Handbook of Public Administration and Policy in the Eurpean Union. Marcel Dekker Inc: New York.