Health and safety in high-tech workplaces

In brief

  • In the software industry, ideas and practices regarding workplace flexibility have led to a greater intensity of work.
  • The model of occupational health safety has also been altered, as the management approach is to encourage “strategies of resilience,” or ways of coping with the new intensity of work rather than creating healthy working conditions.

Why was this study done?

In today’s labour market, flexible work arrangements -- in which the location and hours of work are not set -- are common. Some have questioned whether flexible work has been good for workers and businesses. Less is known about its effects on management styles and on occupational health and safety (OHS). This study explores these issues in the software industry.

How was the study done?

Researchers interviewed managers at 30 computer software firms in Ontario, Canada. They asked questions about staff turnover, typical workdays, and practices relating to health and safety. The researchers focused on the way respondents reasoned or explained their ideas and practices in these areas.

What did the researchers find?

Managers described flexible work positively. For instance, it led to enhanced creativity among employees, greater independence, and opportunity to pursue interests outside of work. However, they also showed that in practice, flexible work created intense work conditions, and collapsed the boundaries between work and home. Workers were expected to be available at all times to meet deadlines. In terms of workplace health, flexibility appeared to favour the most resilient workers, who had learned to cope with long and uncertain working hours. Managers did not think they were responsible for creating workplace health and safety conditions for this resilience.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study is unique because of its focus on managers in the software industry and their understandings of OHS. However, the findings may be specific to this industry, where staff turnover is high and employees tend to be male and young.

Publication Information

Title: 

“You are free to set your own hours”: Governing worker productivity and health through flexibility and resilience.

Author(s): 

MacEachen E, Polzer J, Clarke J

Journal: 

Social Science & Medicine, 2008: vol. 66, no. 5, pp. 1019-1033