Stress is a national obsession

Stress is back on the agenda. The launch of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) management standards (Personnel Today, 9 November), National Stress Awareness Day, and the surveys revealing that stress is on the increase and the single biggest cause of absenteeism (even if some management have no experience of their staff suffering from stress), have turned it into a national obsession.

I would argue it is a national reality and because of this, the HSE standards are a disappointment. Measurable standards on the management and reduction of stress, and practical guidance on how to achieve them, are long overdue. While we welcome initiatives to help employers better support staff by improving working conditions, the new guidelines are neither measurable – as surely standards should be – nor easily understood or simple to apply.

Stress is a real workplace hazard and employers would be helped by more hard-edged recommendations. The abstract language leaves much to the imagination of individual employers. The likelihood is that those organisations that need to tackle stress most urgently will be under no obligation to do more than show they comply with these recommendations. Since they are general, this does not necessarily translate into concrete actions intended to reduce stress for employees.

We realise that this is a developmental process, and that things are undoubtedly moving in the right direction. That said, we spend a lot of time trying to convince employers that the woolly area of stress is worthy of their attention.

Barry Winbolt
Head of clinical practice, PPC Worldwide

Do not fear stress, manage it properly

I welcome the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) recent focus on work-related stress (Personnel Today, 9 November). In a competitive environment, where we are approaching full employment and employers are desperately trying to improve productivity, the costs associated with stress – as released by the TUC and HSE – can no longer be ignored.

The problem from an organisational point of view is that we have a term bandied about in a negative context by various institutions with no standard or commercially-relevant measurement. Doctors have no standard definition for stress; employers have none; and employees certainly don’t have one. In short, we cannot manage what we cannot measure.

The truth is that stress, managed properly, is a perfectly natural response to pressure.

We need a certain amount of stress to respond to and cope with the inevitable pressures of our daily lives at work and at home. It is ‘distress’ that is bad; bad for individuals and the organisations they work for.

This is where employers can make a valuable contribution to helping their employees. The answer is not to create fear and loathing among the boards and HR directors who are responsible for leading people at work. The work we do with high-performing organisations, including Standard Life Healthcare, Unilever, Bedfordshire Police and Seven Trent Water, proves that employers can manage pressure to the advantage of the individual and the organisation. First, by measuring and understanding stress, and then empowering people through appropriate health and well-being programmes to manage it.

If we are to avert the well-documented looming ‘public health crisis’, organisations need to realise the role they must play in supporting their employees’ health.

Clive Pinder
Managing director, Vielife

Age stereotypes are not helpful to debate

Your coverage of issues relating to the ageing workforce was interesting and timely (Personnel Today, 26 October). As someone who has studied age discrimination and the implications of ageing, I believe some contributions contained misconceptions about older workers.

Due to their life experiences, people become more diverse as they age, and the assertion that baby boomers believe in loyalty, career progress and time served, as opposed to the aspirations of generation X, is based on unhelpful stereotypes.

Managers supervising workers who are older than them is not new – this was the case in my first job more than 25 years ago.

There are no special skills required other than effective management that recognises each person as an individual and treats them with respect. The challenge for employers is to make sure that work is sufficiently stimulating and flexible to keep workers motivated. The biggest risks are that workers with more years of experience and greater self-awareness find traditional organisational cultures unfulfilling and move on to self-employment or re-training.

We must recognise that physiological ageing and the onset of illness or disability is not related to chronological age, and that any age cut off is essentially arbitrary, whether it relates to retirement or access to training. Similarly, occupational health should focus increasingly on issues such as stress and obesity, which affect people of all ages.

Margaret Edwards
Director, Mead Solutions

Too many firms in dark ages over age

I run a London-based agency geared up to help mature workers find new jobs. The sad fact is that too many companies are still living in the dark ages when it comes to age discrimination in the workplace.

Some might even call it a corporate pandemic, despite the new anti-ageism legislation planned for 2006.

It’s true that new rules will make any reference to age in recruitment advertisements, interviews or at the workplace, illegal, but I wonder how that will work in practice.

It’s one thing to require all future recruitment to be based on skill, ability and potential, and for any redundancy decisions to be completely unbiased, but who’s going to monitor this? Older people will still be relying on the goodwill of corporate management to follow the new code and eliminate discrimination.

And that’s a real leap of faith on their part.

The Government accepts that one in four people aged 50 to 69 have experienced age discrimination when working or looking for work.

At Forties People, we see the hard evidence of discrimination every day. Almost every older person we see believes that employers generally discriminate against older workers, and many don’t see new laws changing much at all. Tony Blair says he wants to change the culture that writes people off at 65, 60 or even 55, regardless of whether they want to work or not – he’d better hurry up because we have growing number of very concerned people.

Spencer Jacobs
Managing director, Forties People

An early start is key to pensions crisis

The Turner Commission has completely missed the point over the pensions shortfall.

The real reasons for the shortfall are that Whitehall continues to advise Parliament that it is all right for employers to do a Robert Maxwell with any pension fund surpluses, and that most middle-class workers aren’t starting their pensions anywhere near early enough.

When I left school, because most of us only expected to work down the pit or in the car factory, we were encouraged to start our own pension schemes at 18 or 21. This means we would be paying into our funds for up to 47 years.

Now, because too many students waste six years doing A-levels, degrees, and gap years, they are paying far less into their pension funds.

The real issue is: how much longer can we as a nation afford to keep our best people out of the workforce doing leisure degrees? We need to get at least 85 per cent of our 16-year-olds into work, which includes trade education. Only then we will we solve the pensions crisis in the longer term.

Chris Youett
Technology journalist, Coventry

Hot HR discussions online

Can you help with the latest questions posted on PersonnelToday.com’s discussion forums? At the time of going to press, discussion points were:

– Richard Mills wants advice on how to control outstanding corporate credit card bills when employees leave the company. So far, the discussion warns of registering cards at an individual’s address.

–  Homeworking and the health and safety implications have sparked plenty of advice for Sandra Beale, with the discussion covering the need for clear communication and contractual considerations

– Recognition without financial reward: Helen Humphries is looking for evidence to support the idea that recognition for commitment to the organisation’s objectives over time without the attachment of a tangible financial benefit can be a motivator.

HR practitioners who post a message or reply to a question will automatically be entered into a competition to win one of three fabulous prizes:

– a Harrods hamper worth £150

– a £100 Harrods gift voucher; and

– a £50 Harrods gift voucher.

For terms and conditions see www.personneltoday.com/competitions. The closing date is Thursday 9 December.

Go to www.personneltoday.com/discussionforums


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