What are American workers' biggest fears?

September 13, 2012: 12:57 PM ET

More workers listed flat paychecks than even fear of losing their jobs as their top source of workplace stress in a recent survey.

By Elizabeth G. Olson

FORTUNE -- As workers return to the office routine after their summer vacations this year, they are feeling more secure about the jobs they are returning to, but not feeling so swell about the size of their paychecks, according to a new survey.

Just 4% of respondents in a survey by Harris Interactive ranked fear of being fired or laid off as their primary workplace worry. This was a drop from 9% in last year's study. While annoying coworkers, commuting, and work overload also were top triggers for anxiety, more workers fretted about low wages, with 11% naming flat paychecks at the top of their workplace stress list.

This snapshot of worker sentiment is backed up by recent jobs data, says Christine Owen, economist at the National Employment Law Project. "We are not seeing the same level of job loss," as the massive personnel rifts that characterized the recession period have ended, she says, "and fewer people are looking for employment after losing their jobs than they were several years ago.

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"After one year, two, or three, people worry less about being let go by their employer," says Owen. "And the kinds of jobs being created are not highly paid."

Paychecks are a hot-button issue for women, with 14% of those surveyed listing low wages at the top of their workplace stress list. That compares to 8% of men, in the survey commissioned annually by Everest College, a for-profit education institution that is part of Corinthian Colleges.

Women have made some progress in closing the gender pay gap, according to newly released federal census data. Last year, the median income for a woman was $37,118, up from the $28,699 in 1973, taking inflation into account. Men, on the other hand, saw their median earnings fall to $48,202 this year, some $2,000 less than the $50,622 average in 1973.

Still, women listed working in a job that is not their chosen career as a major source of stress in this year's survey. Some 11% of women said that was stressful, more than twice the 5% response of men, says John Swartz, the Everest College spokesman for the survey.

"The economic recession may be contributing to that workplace distress," Swartz says. "Women may be working for the good of the household, and taking any job because that's what they have to do."

Among college-educated workers, unreasonable workload ranked higher than pay as a point of major dissatisfaction. Some 11% of college-educated workers complained about low pay, but even more -- 14% -- of workers without high school degrees chafed at their low paychecks.

As wages remain stagnant, working at low or middle-income jobs provided almost no economic security or advancement in the past decade, according to the Economic Policy Institute, an economics research organization. In fact, over the past three decades only a few Americans have benefitted from economic growth, says the report, "The State of Working America," which released its 12th edition this week.

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Average household income fell 1.7% between 2010 and 2011, said Institute economists Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz, citing newly released U.S. Census Bureau data on 2011 income, poverty, and health.

The top 5% of income earners saw their average household income rise by 5.1% between 2010 and 2011. But Shierholz said in a briefing Wednesday that the "most important number is that a typical median household brought in 12.4% less income in 2011 compared to 2010."

African-American households were hit the hardest, with median household income falling by a steep 16.8% from 2010 to 2011, and Hispanic households saw a 10.8% decline, the report found.

Two-thirds of the jobs lost in the recession and its aftermath "were mid-wage occupations," says the National Employment Law Project's Owen, and 58% of the jobs that have since been created are in the low-wage tier, with salaries ranging between $15,995 and $28,766. Middle-wage jobs are classified as a positions earning between $28,787 and $43,950.

Work overload is also squeezing employees, those responding to the survey said, with many employees working full-throttle, as companies demand more. Some 9% said their workload was unreasonable. Worker productivity -- the amount of output per worker -- rose 1.6% from April through June, the Labor Department found, as companies slowed hiring to 75,000 jobs monthly, only about one-third of the average 226,000 monthly hires in the first quarter on 2012.

"There seems to be a dichotomy in the workplace," says Brett Good, senior district president for Robert Half International, a national staffing services firm. "Unemployment for those with college degrees is in the 3% to 4% range, in serious contrast to probably 14% to 16% unemployment for those with lighter skills."

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Although workers may be complaining around the coffee pot or on Facebook, hiring is not all bleak. Robert Half's annual professional employment report found that 17% of U.S. executives queried say they will add full-time, professional-level staff in the last quarter of 2012.

Although more than one-third of the executives surveyed said they were very confident about their company's growth prospects (56% said they are somewhat confident). Another 5% said they would likely be letting people go.

"That means 12% will be hiring," said Good. "And that's a good sign."

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