UKNWSN Annual Conference, November 2014, Hillscourt Conference Centre, Rednal, Birmingham

This report covers the main aspects of the annual conference held under the theme of "Tackling work-stress in an uncertain future - we're dying to ease the burden on business!" Over 90 delegates were present, and the usual programme of Plenary Session followed by Q&A then Workshops for the afternoon and on the Sunday morning were the order of the day.

Regrettably two speakers were unable to participate and so the programme was adjusted to take account of this. We were grateful to Tarani Chandola at Manchester University for stepping in to fill the academic presentation slot, and make a return visit. Unfortunately the anticipated legal presentation had to be missed out as it was not possible to find a replacement Solicitor at the very last minute.

The Conference was ably chaired by Carolyn Jones, director of the Institute of Employment Rights - we are grateful to Carolyn and to speakers and workshop facilitators for their contributions, also to delegates without whom the conference would not work!

The following notes are from the plenary session supported by copies of the slides shown by keynote speakers.

Plenary Contributions

Vaughan Skirrey and Bob Woods - outlined the work of the Stress Network and put in a plea for additional help and contributions from delegates who are able to participate in the work of the Network.

A year with the Stress Network Vaughan Skirrey and Bob Woods

Tarani Chandola

Tarani reported on research work carried out by Professor Stansfield and himself into the effects of work environment and health. The main thrust of the work was to examine how supportive managers are and what the main stressors were. With the HSE Stress Management Standards in mind, the study set out to see the extent to which workers' abilities to cope were related to management styles. Outcomes were assessed by examination of sickness absence rates and the examination of trends.

The study was carried out in a northern NHS Health Trust in which groups of managers were provided with an E-learning programme and then the application of the learning was assessed.

The training process involved four hours of study supplemented by six hours of module reading examining the management of behaviours. Additional workshop sessions were provided to assist with the learning process. Over 400 workers were recruited across four discreet sites and there was no cross-contact. There was a control group established to enable proper examination of the impact of the manager training and its impact. Some levels of managerial competency were assumed.

The project outcome showed that manager involvement was poor, with 12% withdrawing and 51% completing only part of the project. There were general decreases in well-being across all groups although higher in the control group. Sickness absence increased over the winter months rather than in summer with slightly higher increases in the control group.

Overall the intervention had no real direct effect, not making things worse or better. The qualitative outcomes motivated those managers who were strongly interested and wishing to help their work-teams. The existence of concurrent organisational change had a serious effect in that many mangers dropped out due to 'work overload'. It was of course noted that such times would have required more support and intervention, so the drop-out rate had a negative impact, allied to which there was minimal even nil senior management buy-in to the project.

So although this was a failed project it was not a complete failure. It needed higher engagement, to be more attractive and engaging, with increased buy-in from senior management. The project did not engage with the workers, but used regular trust data on attendance, absence rates etc. There had been some limited TU involvement prior to the project commencing and an advisory committee did involve a local TU representative.

Piloting an e-learning programme for Managers: the GEM study Tarani Chandola

Tracey Harding

Tracey Harding, UNISON's Head of Health & Safety, spoke about the team she managed and its role within UNISON and its relationship with the National H&S Committee. Consultation responses to a range of issues were an important focus of that Committee's work.

Tracey outlined the UNISON "Cut Stress Not Jobs" campaign, noting that the biennial TUC H&S Survey had once again highlighted Stress as a key workplace issue. Issues of restructuring have created higher levels of work-stress especially related to Public Sector restructuring, job cuts, redundancies and retention of workloads. There were constant organisational changes going on, cuts, negotiations, restructuring, reduced flexibilities, greater emphasis on workers' own lack of gratefulness for continued work.

All of these factors hit the workers hard but also had a negative effect on those who represented them in the workplace and the union structures. There remained a need for continued recruitment, together with a common voice of opposition. In addition effective employer engagement was required with real understanding of the causes, effects and symptoms as well as costs of work-stress.

The HSE Standards were still in place but used very little and applied in a minimal way, often watered down to fit the employers' own agenda. Limited reporting of stress in the workplace meant that it largely went unnoticed, and potentially important data was either lost or never recorded.

In conclusion, Tracey looked towards the 2015 Election and the impact of continued austerity measures on the overall workforce, especially that of Public Sector employment

Health & Safety in the union UNISON Tracey Harding

Rebecca Norris, Occupational Psychologist, Work and Well-being Consultants, Scotland

Rebecca began by way of an introduction looking at the overall lack of employer awareness of Mental Health issues in the workplace. It was noticeable that whilst many discussions consider the issue of workplace Mental Health - individuals often tend to ignore their own Mental Health and wellbeing. It was also significant that there were gender differences in relation to Mental Health. Women were more likely to experience Mental Health issues, and associated treatments, including for depressive illnesses. Men were more likely to have drug or alcohol problems, and male suicides were higher, and they were not seeking advice and support early enough, indeed if at all. This was a ‘macho’ thing where men perceived that Mental Health problems were a sign of weakness. Not only were there biological differences but also social differences.

Offshore industries and the 'heavier' industries focus more on the safety issues, accidents and prevention and tended to side-line the mental health and well-being issues. Good mental health in the workplace was essential to success and there was a constant need to promote healthy workplaces. CIPD data showed workers reporting increasing levels of work pressures as reasons to leave their jobs. Many were retiring early and quickly (with reduced pensions) because of health issues, and through lack of a phased retirement process.

The costs to business were largely ignored. There was a requirement for greater understanding of stress and how performance was affected by poor management understanding of mental health in the workplace, and there was a prerequisite for greater risk management. Part-time workers were more prone to stress issues linked to their mix of roles and other duties. Known causes were pretty common across most workplaces especially including greater demands on fewer staff, more job insecurity, the need to observe and talk about issues and the need for positive feedback. In many cases technology was taking the place of face to face discussion - use of email, conference calling etc. meant that the skills of interpersonal relationships in meetings were diminishing. This also created an increase in 'out of hours' contact by email and even by text messaging.

The Healthy Working Lives project was taking a more holistic approach measuring problems and reducing risks. Dialogue was encouraged more particularly in the current austerity climate. It was noted that daily routines were important especially the taking of regular breaks and food, thereby taking back control over work rate.

There were increasing issues not only around gender but also around age, and it had to be recognised that the more older workers there are, the more support was required and recognition of their specific needs and the creation of good working environments for all. The project was supporting many SMEs and low paid sectors where needs were greatest. It was recognised that good work was good for workers and for good health. Employers' continued failures to make the necessary links between effective and supportive performance management and stress was a significant problem.

Mental Health, Stress and Work Pressures in Uncertain Times Stress Risk Assessment for Individualls and Small Teams Rebecca Norris

Ian Draper

Ian Draper, Network Convenor gave a brief outline in Powerpoint format of the causes, effects symptoms and costs of work-stress, and included brief references to the present legal situation and the difficulties in proving fault on the part of the employer in negligence or personal injury cases.

Tackling Stress in Today's Climate Ian Draper