HR report on staff stress dismissed as 'valueless'

Institute director circulates survey findings with 'health warning' attached, writes Melanie Newman

January 15, 2009

When a report on staff stress levels by human-resource managers warns of a plethora of problems including "friction and anger" between colleagues, managers might be expected to take the "urgent action" called for.

But when the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Leeds was confronted with such findings, its director responded by circulating a critique of the report, warning that it would be "extremely dangerous" to act on them.

The study, carried out last year by the university under Health and Safety Executive guidelines, raised concerns about staff workloads, said support from managers had to improve and reported "unachievable deadlines and unrealistic time pressures".

Gary Rawnsley, the institute's director, responded by attaching a damning analysis of the report when he circulated it to staff.

The critique, titled "Findings from the stress survey - a health warning", was written by David Morrison, professor of communication research at Leeds.

It says the findings are "valueless and in no way should be accepted as a statement relating to stress within the institute".

"The survey has no social scientific value whatsoever and if acted upon would be extremely dangerous," Professor Morrison writes. Acting on the findings could create problems that do not exist, he adds.

He goes on to disparage the survey as "appallingly constructed" and to suggest that HR knew nothing about survey research, accusing managers of showing "stubbornness in sin" in proceeding with the questionnaire despite his warnings.

"If this survey is measuring anything, it is disgruntlement," he says. But even on that issue, the results could not be applied to the institute as a whole, he argues: "If one has an over-representation of easily stressed people - neurotic or whatever - in the population, then the survey will return a high stress score."

That score could be "quite unrelated to organisational or management performance", he says.

He also criticises the survey for not distinguishing between different groups within the 40-strong department.

In a memo to staff, Professor Rawnsley says that circulating the critique was appropriate because Professor Morrison was an expert in survey research.

The survey and the critique were leaked to Times Higher Education by a source who accused the two professors of "protesting too much" and claimed that bullying was widespread in the ICS.

Professor Rawnsley and Professor Morrison were both unavailable for comment. However, Mark Taylor-Batty, vice-president of the University and College Union branch at Leeds, said: "It is worrying that management would seek to divert attention away from the obligation to respond to the less-than-desirable outcomes of a stress survey rather than seek to tackle the causes of stress head on in accord with guidance from HR and in consultation with the unions."

Stephen Scott, pro vice-chancellor for students and staff at Leeds, insisted that the survey's findings would be used appropriately. He said: "The health and wellbeing of our staff are paramount, and we are using this survey to help us improve working conditions across campus ...

"The stressor survey is a nationally recognised tool ... We achieved a very positive response rate - more than 4,000 (53 per cent), and staff are now being invited to meetings to talk about the results and how to address them.

"UCU, Unite and Unison support this initiative and are heavily involved in the implementation of the survey and follow-up actions."

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