Stress-busters are put in place at Luton

November 10, 2000

Luton University has finally met health and safety orders to improve the way it manages workplace stress.

A routine inspection by the Health and Safety Executive earlier this year uncovered serious problems with the handling of staff stress and occupational health at Luton. It issued three formal improvement orders that the university met last week, after several extensions.

Luton was told to improve the management of occupational stress, improve the occupational health service and improve the management of asbestos in the old buildings on its campus.

The HSE said the university had drawn up new policies to comply with the orders. "We were looking to see improvements in the overall approach, with the right management philosophy and policies," said a spokeswoman. The university will be re-inspected in a year.

Luton has had serious staffing problems after a series of cuts. More cuts are threatened because of under-recruitment this year.

A Mori poll last year found that more than half of lecturers at Luton had no confidence in senior management, with 59 per cent describing managers as "authoritarian". Just 18 per cent of lecturers believed that staff-management relations were improving, compared with 30 per cent who said things were getting worse.

A spokeswoman for Luton said the university had been working very closely with the HSE. She pointed out that the Mori poll also made some positive findings. Almost 60 per cent of staff said they were either fairly satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, and 70 per cent said they rated the university either average or above average as an employer.

Lecturers' union Natfhe says stress-related illness has become a national phenomenon and the situation at Luton could be the tip of the iceberg.

Dangerous levels of stress in the sector is one of five key issues the union is campaigning on in its bid to call a national strike in higher education.

Tom Wilson, Natfhe's head of universities, said: "Sickness absence is on the rise, and it is taking a different form. Previously, it would be short term, now it can last for months. Increasingly, people are trying to get early retirement on health grounds as well."

Treatment on sick leave brings tribunal

Alfred Vella, Luton's former head of computing, is taking the university to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal.

Dr Vella made complaints about reorganisation and cuts in his department throughout the late 1990s. In October 1997, he complained to his faculty dean about a reduction in staff and the withdrawal of technical support.

In September 1998, Dr Vella signed off with a stress-related illness. He was on sick leave for more than a year. During this time, he alleges, the university removed him as head of department and bullied him. The university counter-accused Dr Vella of damaging its reputation with public attacks.

In May 2000, the university's appeal body rejected Dr Vella's claims that he had been bullied, unfairly removed from his post and that the university had failed to support him.

In June, the university's disciplinary committee found Dr Vella guilty of gross misconduct and of not performing his duties properly since his return from sick leave.

An employment tribunal will hear Dr Vella's claims of unfair dismissal next year.

The university said it could not comment while the case was pending.

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