Labour Research September 2015


Buzz word rears its ugly head

Unions have told Labour Research how employers are looking to resilience as a way of trying to make workers more able to cope with stress, rather than trying to remove or reduce it.

Over the past few years, “resilience” has a become new “management speak”.

Hugh Robertson, head of health and safety at the TUC, has been warning about a “resilience industry” for some time. “A new industry is developing which aims to help us cope better with stress and, not surprising, human resource professionals are lapping it up,” he said.

He explained that this new resilience approach was fast becoming a buzz-word among managers, with consultants promoting packages aimed at improving resilience and even bodies like the health and safety professionals’ organisation IOSH promoting it.

The problem, he said, was that an approach based on developing people’s ability to cope better with the demands placed on them in order to bounce back from adversity or change “is looking at completely the wrong solution to the problem. We do not want to see workers moulded into robots that can ‘bounce back’ regardless of what is thrown at them. We want to see workers protected by their employer, reducing and managing the stress that they face.”

Last year, Robertson warned that companies are even being encouraged to screen for resilience before taking on new staff.

This month, some of those gathered at the biggest health and safety event in the union and safety campaigners’ calendar, the Hazards conference, will be discussing how to respond to the “resilience agenda” at a workshop on resisting resilience, engagement and well-being.

John Bamford, health and safety advisor at UCU college and university lecturers’ union, is running the conference workshop. He explained that resilience has arisen as part of an “unholy trinity”, alongside well-being and engagement.

“Add mindfulness and you’ve got the four horsemen of the apocalypse as far as any real employer approach to removing the causes of stress-related illness goes,” he told Labour Research.

These management concepts follow on from neuro-linguistic programming, which he describes as “one of the pseudo-psychological responses to individual’s personal “failure” to deal with appalling behaviour”, and so-called behavioural economics “that try to disguise the fact that equality and poverty are both getting worse by offering a ‘touchy-feely’ alternative to hard realities”.

Resilience is yet another approach that “points the finger directly at personal weakness rather than at capitalism and the collective oppression imposed on workers by employers and politicians,” said Bamford.

Unions confront the resilience agenda

Labour Research asked unions organising across a range of sectors about their experiences of employers taking a resilience approach, rather than tackling stress, and found that resilience is raising its ugly head in both the public and private sector.

“Resilience is one of those in vogue words that tends to send alarm bells ringing for us,” Bud Hudspith, national health and safety adviser at the Unite general union, told Labour Research. “It features widely in consultant-led stress programmes that continue to focus more on the individual than on the behaviour of organisations. It implies that individuals can find ways of coping with stress rather than organisations seeking to reduce stress at work. Unfortunately, organisations tend to jump on this rather than do such things as applying the Stress Management Standards.” (see box).

“Even companies that are doing some of the right things still have a tendency towards talk of ‘resilience’ and the implementation of resilience courses,” he added.

Performance criteria include resilience

Meanwhile, public and commercial services union PCS safety reps have reported “being resilient to change” has been included in some performance appraisal systems.

“At local level, we successfully fought to get this taken out, but it is coming up again at national level this year,” Labour Research was told. “We have included information about resilience in our latest stress bulletin to members, to raise awareness, and are urging members to contact us if they are being asked to sign up to performance appraisals that include reference to resilience. The information the TUC and Hazards have produced on this has been really useful.”

PCS is currently reviewing its guidance on work-related stress for reps and the revised version will cover resilience.

Tesco's resilience training

Doug Russell, health and safety officer for shopworkers’ union Usdaw, pointed to supermarket giant Tesco’s resilience training material, developed for its “youth academy”.

This says: “Life doesn’t always go to plan! It is important, therefore, that young people are able to deal with changes and setbacks in a positive way. This module explains how being resilient will allow students to be flexible when they encounter change and find positive opportunities even in difficult situations.”

The topics covered in the module are: dealing with stress, where students will learn how to identify and manage stress and maintain their energy levels; managing your responses: where students will learn how to respond to difficult, day-to-day situations in a constructive way; and overcoming challenges, where students will learn about ways to stay positive and deal with significant setbacks or changes.

Punitive sickness monitoring in education

In education, a rep in the NUT teachers’ union said that alarm bells rang when a local authority officer used the phrase — “we need to build resilience in teachers” — at a meeting looking at ill-health trends for education employees. The Academy Trust she works for also “has this idea that ill health is simply something that staff can improve themselves”.

She told Labour Research: “The head also used the words ‘we need to build resilience in staff’ so that they don’t take time off sick. The way she wants to do this is to give teachers who have 100% attendance the equivalent of a day’s supply in a one-off payment.”

And she added: “This notion of resilience implies that staff are not genuinely ill. It puts the onus completely on the staff and takes no responsibility that workload pressures may be the cause of staff illness. Some staff are off with stress and again there is the implication that somehow if they tried a bit harder and had a bit more resilience they could in fact come into work.”

More and more punitive sickness monitoring policies mean a growing culture of preseentesim, where staff go into school when they are ill. And “there seems to be a culture where any absence is seen to be a sign of weakness on the teacher’s behalf,” the NUT rep said. The introduction of Zumba exercise classes to help relieve stress folded as staff were too exhausted to attend! Meanwhile, the actual causes of staff illness and absence, excessive workload and stress, continue unchecked.

Hidden agenda behind wellbeing initiatives

Tracey Harding, UNISON’s head of health and safety, reports that safety reps are coming across resilience more and more in the public services, where it is being pushed by health and safety consultants.

“It tries to make you tough, to cope with the demands of the job, rather than your manager dealing with those demands,” she told Labour Research. “It puts the onus on the employee to cope better, rather than on the manager to manage better.”

She said that resilience is often packaged in a way that is quite attractive, with head massages, yoga and pilates classes on offer, for example. And while these things may help people to cope with stress — “Who wouldn’t want a head massage?” she asks — it is not the same as managing stress.

“It’s just putting on a plaster — a very attractive plaster — but it’s not dealing with the actual causes of stress,” she said.

“We are trying to educate our safety reps about the hidden agenda behind some of these wellbeing initiatives and warning them that no business is going to put on yoga classes and head messages solely for the good of their employees. They may get a less stressed workforce, but not because they are managing stress.”

Management standards for stress

Unions argue that employers should deal with stress by using Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Management Standards for stress. These cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.

The following six Management Standards cover the primary sources of stress at work:

Demands — including issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.

Control — how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

Support — including the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

Relationships — including promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

Role — whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.

Change — how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

The Management Standards represent a set of conditions that, if present, reflect a high level of health well-being and organisational performance, the HSE says. And they:

• demonstrate good practice through a step by step risk assessment approach;

• allow assessment of the current situation using surveys and other techniques;

• promote active discussion and working in partnership with employees to help decide on practical improvements that can be made; and

• help simplify risk assessment for work related stress by:

◊ identifying the main risk factors for work related stress;

◊ helping employers focus on the underlying causes and their prevention;

◊ and providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress.

The Management Standards are available at:

TUC guidance on using the standards is available at:

Good practice on workplace stress

Earlier this year, at a TUC seminar —Good practice in workplace mental health— reps and officials from the specialists’ union Prospect, Usdaw, construction union UCATT, teachers’ union ATL, the Unite general union and the NUT set out how they and their unions were taking a trade union approach to tackling stress at workplace, national and even European level.

For example, Patrick Hagg and Dave Artis, respectively a manager and Prospect representative at the Highways Agency, reported on a joint union/management approach to mental health at the agency. This includes a stress management toolkit and a reasonable adjustment agreement specifically for mental health. It enables people with mental health issues to start conversations with their line manager at an early stage.

This joint approach has brought about an 18% drop in mental health-related sickness absence, the pair revealed.

In addition, Prospect has trained its representatives to recognise stress and 70 Prospect reps had trained as “mental health first aiders” by the time of the February 2015 seminar.

The NUT has published joint guidance for school leaders with the GMB and Unite general unions, Preventing work-related mental health conditions by tackling stress, after a survey by the NUT found that 90% of teachers had considered leaving the profession over the previous two years because of workload.

The guidance sets out that, while they are not medical experts and are themselves under acute pressure, school leaders have a role in protecting staff. It asks them to maintain a reasonable work/life balance for staff; try to address the stigma attached to mental health conditions; intervene early if they suspect someone is becoming ill; and undertake a stress risk assessment.

Unite’s approach to the problem also includes using its Looking for Trouble campaign to get worker reps involved in dialogue with employers in order to create “a climate where workers will feel comfortable raising their concerns about stress and psychosocial risks”, without fear of ridicule or victimisation.

And at European level, it has reported that union members on the European Works Council of a global insurance company, with 160,000 employees, successfully negotiated stress guidelines, which local reps then worked to get implemented nationally.

UNISON’s Tracey Harding has advised employers and managers that they should accept they have an obligation to manage stress and develop a stress management strategy, in consultation with their trade unions, to find out where the stressors are; who are they affecting; and what management controls can be implemented in order to minimise the effects.

“Once those are in place, they can look at helping employees cope better and I’m sure a relaxing head massage or two wouldn’t go amiss,” she said.