Employers should channel energy into making their workplaces less stressful instead of fighting claims for compensation, says Audrey Bland
At a time when the Health and Safety Commission has urged trade unions to raise awareness of occupational health issues among their members, it may appear hypocritical that stress-related ill-health is still regarded as a poor relation to chemical poisoning, asbestos or other physical injuries.
Employers often assume it is the employee who is faulty and dismiss suggestions that the employer’s systems, management culture or the physical environment of the workplace could be at fault. But even if we accept this diagnosis, are there any benefits to be gained by improving the lot of the employee at work?
It is often difficult to evaluate the financial gains of good employee relations as the positive results are realised in the longer term, and most organisations look for short-term paybacks. Long-termism is not fashionable in the cut and thrust of today’s marketplace, although it could become more feasible in the current employee retention scenario. Employers can no longer rely on inherent employee loyalty as the old fashioned psychological contract is in tatters, so they cannot depend on employee devotion to duty if the employee is not treated fairly or with care.
So how can we evaluate the benefits of putting into practice the maxim that "our staff are our strategic advantage"?
There have been a number of authoritative writers on employee retention and motivation who have demonstrated that money is not the only answer. Staff want to be heard, treated fairly, managed properly, and most of all valued. This takes time and communication and listening skills. Unfortunately, the pace of business life lends itself to providing excuses and reasons for not engaging in listening, valuing and treating staff fairly.
What evidence do we have to support this and what, if any, is the cost to industry? The out-of-court settlement to Leslie North for stress in August was greeted by a spokesperson from the Institute of Directors with derision. They were quoted in a national newspaper as referring to the settlement as "the litigation and compensation culture gone absolutely barmy".
"It makes running a business increasingly impossible. If employers don’t start standing up to these increasingly absurd claims they are going to get everything thrown at them. Now anybody who has the normal stresses and strains in a job and believes they cannot cope, for one reason or another, can just claim their huge payout."
The payout was reported to be £100,000, way below the million-pound payouts to departing, not so successful, CEOs of large corporations. Is this double standards?
Ever since the landmark Walker case of 1996, there has been a queue forming from teachers to council employees to many unreported cases of employees seeking compensation for the ill-health effects of workplace stress. It is difficult to see the tide turning and employees going back to the good old days of putting up with poor work conditions for longer-term security of tenure.
Employers can no longer offer this and the new generation of staff may not want it. They are highly mobile with portable skills so it may be more financially beneficial for employers to channel the efforts expended in fighting claims into assessing risk and removing the causes of workplace stress. These will have benefits far beyond the immediate benefit to a particular worker, as the more capable may choose to vote with their feet, and seek out a more caring employer or less stressful working environment.
If we believe that people are really an organisation’s strategic advantage, why do some just forget to listen, value them and assess the risk to their well being and productivity all in the name of expediency?
Audrey Bland is an independent consultant and lecturer at Middlesex University Business School