Stress: call to arms

November 24, 2006

Union rallies the troops over anxiety in the workplace, reports Tony Tysome.

It is time to stop complaining and to get tough with employers who fail to deal with the causes of workplace stress, according to union leaders this week, as research reveals that the vast majority of staff feel the issue has been brushed under the carpet.

A survey of 500 staff commissioned by the University and College Union found that 16 per cent thought their institution was doing something to tackle rising stress levels. This is despite the publication this summer of employers guidelines on measures to reduce workplace stress. The UCU described the guidelines as "very helpful", but it irritated employers with the claim that they had been largely ignored. The UCU was due to unveil a strategy for combating stress at a conference in London this week, which coincides with anti-bullying week.

Roger Kline, the UCU's head of equality and employment relations, said the strategy would involve urging local union branches to investigate the causes of stress and to put pressure on managers to tackle the problem.

He said: "As a union, we have done a lot of complaining in the past about excessive workloads, bullying management culture and unpaid overtime. But we have never been systematic in how we respond to that."

The UCU plans to use the conference to launch a set of standards from its health and safety executive that identify chief causes of stress. Top of the list, Mr Kline said, was the fact that academics felt they had "lost ownership" of their professional role.

He said: "They increasingly feel that they are not respected to manage their own time and are required to spend much of it chasing targets."

He added that "macho management styles" - another chief cause of stress - were "alive and well". Rising workloads and insecurity due to fixed-term contracts were also recognised.

Patrick Nash, chief executive of the advice charity the College and University Support Network, said: "Thirty-one per cent of calls from lecturers to our helpline in the past six months have been from people who were feeling anxious, stressed or depressed."

The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association denied that employers were doing little to address concerns.

A spokesman said: "Management of stress in the workplace is a matter on which the sector has placed a great deal of emphasis, and Ucea's Preventing and Tackling Stress at Work booklet has received a great deal of acclaim.

Prevention, assessment and support are central to the responsibilities of employers and employees in dealing with stress. Both the approach and the booklet are fully endorsed by the Health and Safety Executive and the unions."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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