This week’s letters

HSE’s stress guides inherently flawed

Recent legal judgments, reported in Personnel Today, have established that
employers will have discharged their duty of care relating to stress by taking
reasonable steps to protect employees from its impact.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines imply that reducing work
demands to alleviate stress will suffice. This is almost certainly based on the
incorrect assumption that stress emerges from failure to cope with demanding
events or situations.

The true facts are stress is up to 10 times greater in traditionally less
demanding roles. A much more meaningful measure is job satisfaction and reward,
which reflects the nature of stress and related illness across different
occupations. Decades of research support satisfaction as a better predictor of
productivity, absenteeism and long-term health, yet it is conspicuously absent
in the HSE guidelines.

The guidelines simply demonstrate that a problem exists. Once again, a
blueprint for the enlightened workplace is omitted – and more importantly, how
to build it.

This shortcoming is almost certainly the consequence of the guidelines being
developed from a series of empirical observations that have not been unified by
a common explanatory framework. Plainly, the present understanding of stress is
flawed, and people are unsure how to fix it.

These facts are not unknown to the Government. More than a decade ago, and
many times since, the HSE, Department for Work and Pensions, and Department of
Health have been presented with explanations for the underlying trends in
stress and how to deal with it. Your magazine has covered the issue. A
consensus view from a consortium including insurers, corporations, investors
and scientists has been largely ignored.

Two principle questions arise from the recent HSE announcement. In a world
of accelerating pace and scale, with its attendant pressure and ambiguity for
business, will reasonable employers worry if the HSE guidelines establish what
appropriate steps really are?

And, considering the strong relationship between satisfaction, illness and
performance, are we legislating against unhappy and underperforming companies?

Dr Matthew Mills
Head of performance research, Performance First

Traumatic training is just brainwashing

Whether bungee jumping is effective in training VW apprentices or not (News,
27 May), rather depends on how the rest of their course is structured. But
unless delegates are from the Armed Forces, or other professions requiring
regular disaster-response modes, leadership programmes based on a hectic
conveyor belt of heavily physical projects and debriefing sessions are out-of-date
in the 21st century.

Attendance figures on such courses are starting to decline. This is not hard
to understand. Many of today’s senior managers are already exhausted when they
check in. They commute long distances and have an emotionally stressful home

Putting these people through a lengthy programme of 18-hour days, with the
idea of wiping them out physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually
amounts to the same kind of brainwashing tactics employed on new recruits to
religious cults. In financial and HR terms, it can be almost as expensive.

Less disciplined in background, more confident and eloquent than their
predecessors, I predict the next generation of thoroughbred executives will
stampede away from this style of experiential training. I am unable to lend my
support in promoting these packages, when there are less traumatic and more
beneficial, holistic ways to learn on offer.

Shirley Collins
Former marketing executive, The Leadership Trust

Real danger lies in uniform reporting

The DTI’s taskforce needs to be very clear-headed about what human capital
reporting can deliver (News, 20 May). While there are benefits in getting
organisations to report on how they manage people and think through the people
contribution more fully, there are real dangers the information may confuse
more than it enlightens.

We may simply see reporting only out of compliance or the production of
meaningless statistics. More worryingly, false benchmarks may be created,
leading commentators, governments or investors to make inappropriate

Organisations should develop measures that monitor the right sort of human
capital elements to fit their size, sector, stage of development,
organisational structure and business strategy.

This suggests there should be a light touch in mandatory reporting
requirements. Organisations need to make their own decisions about the most
appropriate metrics, encouraging them to think about productive engagement in
the workforce, unique skills, and people-based factors leading to superior

Human capital may turn out to be a useful link in the chain between employee
and business performance, and may be how HR gets heard in the boardroom. But it
needs more rigorous definition and application in specific organisational

Peter Reilly
Director, HR research & consultancy, Institute for Employment Studies

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