Many reps shared their experiences, highlighting the reluctance of members to admit that they were suffering from stress, as it was perceived as a ‘career killer’. The conference’s key messages included that organisations must manage stress like any other occupational health and safety danger, and that it makes business sense to do so.
The wellbeing gap
Professor Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University, introduced some of his research relating to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
It had shown for example that ‘presenteeism’ costs employers twice as much as absenteeism, a trend even before the recession took hold.
Long working hours were another major issue, with Britain topping the league tables on this. Yet there was no evidence that they increase productivity
He said every job was different but work overload was becoming a growing problem. The issue of underload should not be ignored either, as people afraid of losing their jobs were unlikely to mention it. Many people would rather say they had a musculoskeletal disorder than own up to stress.
The need for workers to feel control and autonomy over their work was very important, though in some professions, such as uniformed services, people worked in a structured environment and were not unhappy, provided they were involved.
“Your relationship with your boss is the most important thing,” he said. A 2102 survey with the Chartered Management Institute of 10,000 managers had revealed two problem management styles: bureaucratic and autocratic. “We are getting the wrong kind of manager. They are not selected on the basis of their social and personal skills,” he said.
Professor Cooper called for much more auditing to diagnose the causes of problems. He also advocated a much wider use of employee assistance programmes using occupational health professionals, as well resilience training for managers and staff. Addressing resilience organisationally ensured stress was not individualised, he added.
There was a very strong business case for tackling stress and promoting wellbeing at work, he added. The National Institute of Clinical Excellence was among those producing good evidence on this.
Performance management tyranny
Professor Phil Taylor of the University of Strathclyde captivated the audience with his speech on the “tyranny of performance management” – a form of systemic workplace bullying which has taken hold in many workplaces as austerity creates a climate and culture of “doing more with less”.
Workers’ rights were under attack in three ways – performance management, lean working and sickness absence management
Professor Taylor had conducted research on behalf of the Scottish TUC on the effect of performance management which was now becoming the ‘new normal’ on employees. More than half the hands in the hall shot up when he asked who was experiencing this.
He said the management obsession with ‘measurables’, ‘metrics’, ‘deliverables’, ‘stats’ etc – with quantitative measures strictly imposed – amounted to ‘pseudoscience’, since the parameters and definitions were subjective and set by management.
Language was used in an Orwellian way, with words like ‘agreed’, ‘shared’, ‘mutual expectations’, ‘dialogue’, ‘support’ and ‘guidance’ masking an odious process that focused on micro-measurement and micro-management of the performance of individuals, facilitated by technology.
The performance management bell curve, also known as ‘forced distribution’, was “a punitive mechanism designed to scare the shit out of the bottom 10 per cent of workers.”
Microsoft had now abandoned this process in favour of team working and collective engagement, but Google had recently introduced it.
Professor Taylor cited Prospect research of BT members in 2012-13, which showed that performance management was also potentially discriminatory. In terms of ethnicity, 14% were high performers in black and ethnic minority groups, and 25% low performers. This compared to 19% of white staff being high performers and 14% low performers.
The figures had also indicated age discrimination, with more high performers among under-50s and more low performers in over-50s.
Another problem was the refusal of organisations to admit that forced ranking was taking place.
Among solutions he advocated were:
- unions at workplace level actively challenging unfair ranking, before the event as well as after
- breaking the culture of people individualising their scores by getting everyone who was unhappy to lodge appeals
- pushing for heath and safety and stress audits
- naming and shaming companies where possible.
He stressed that the situation opened up new opportunities for trade unions to organise and recruit affected people.
Prospect Health and Safety Officer Sarah Page said Prospect’s Stress, Stigma, Solutions campaign offered a range of solutions, from self-help for members, to organisational solutions that reps and managers can employ with Prospect’s support.
The union has produced a new stress pack, containing three tailored guides for members, representatives and line managers.
Organisational solutions included the Health and Safety Executive’s tried and tested Management Standards and the associated competency framework to promote positive stress management behaviours. It was new for Prospect to promote this type of approach, but it provided a framework for managers squeezed from above and below to articulate their training and other needs.
Page encouraged people to recruit new members to the union on the strength of its work in this area, which provided a very powerful reason to join.
Members can download the new guides from the website:
Members’ guide to stress management competencies (for line managers)
The cost of a life
Prospect international development officer Beverley Hall highlighted the devastating consequences in parts of the world where inferior or no safety regulation exists, exemplified by the Rana Plaza clothing factory disaster in Bangladesh.
In Qatar the rate of construction site deaths is eight times higher than in the UK. Those present were asked to sign and share a petition to football governing body FIFA objecting to the treatment of workers, mostly migrants, on construction sites for the 2022 World Cup.
The union effect
A session was held on the positive effect of union H&S reps in the workplace.
Sarah Veale of the TUC publicised its manifesto for reclaiming health and safety at work, A Time for Change.
Professor David Walters of Cardiff University shared his own evidence on the positive link between the presence of union H&S reps and improved H&S outcomes, including in areas of pyschosocial health.
Three Prospect H&S reps shared good practice case studies from their workplaces – Ben Pye (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs); Elaine Simpson (National Library of Scotland) and Gordon Hutchinson (Met Office).