A personal view from SRD shop steward Phil Henshaw

The University makes it clear it wants to be a supportive employer and to provide staff with support, guidance and online resources to make sure their physical, mental and social wellbeing needs are met throughout their career at the university.

Most staff will not experience problems where they need the support of the employer, but recent cases taken up by UNISON suggest that when they do they can feel isolated and unsupported, almost as though they have to battle with the institution whilst they try to address their issues.

In the areas of mental health, of flexible working and bullying and harassment, recent experience suggests that staff feel that their issues are poorly handled. One member, experiencing a PRF process under which bullying was alleged,  reported that : ‘I have not felt like a member of staff at the university for which I have worked for ten years, but as an outsider treated at times by HR with little respect or common courtesy.’

Escalation of issues to the next line manager up the chain does little to instil faith in the process, or the belief that ultimately staff will get a ‘fair hearing’. Staff certainly have an opportunity to be heard, but managers inevitably back up their juniors and reinforce a decision made lower down the hierarchy.

Allocation of ‘independent’ investigators can also raise doubts about how independent they actually are. It is questionable to employ someone who has previously worked at SHU in HR and who is paid by HR and who will be seeking further work from HR. It is difficult to view them as independent. It is also questionable to use a senior manager from another department, when they inevitably bring a managerial view of the world to the process.

HR is there to support management with advice on policy and procedures, the trade union to support the members. It would be preferable if HR were seen to be adopting a more independent and supportive approach to staff members with serious issues. Staff experiencing stress and/or mental health issues are now featuring heavily in personal cases and the University should ensure they are dealt with sensitively and compassionately.

As one recent article in the Observer on stress noted : ‘the mental health of individuals has become the battleground in what might once have involved broader standoffs. Stress appears to be standing in for older concepts like injustice, inequality and frustration, seen at the level of the individual rather than of the wider workforce.’

So whilst the field of stress and mental health can be viewed as complex and multi-faceted, it does require employers to recognise the impact on the workplace, particularly of absence issues. It also demands that managers, and junior managers in particular, are given the skills to be able to deal with staff experiencing these kinds of problems, in a way that is supportive and understanding.

HR also need to be seen to be more rigorous in their questioning of managers submitting vacancies deemed unsuitable for jobshare. On a quick analysis of the SHU vacancy list between October 2015 and January 2016, there were 15 vacancies in the Admin area at grades 5 and 6 classed as unsuitable for jobshare. A number of these were short term contracts but is that a good enough reason alone to rule out a jobshare arrangement? The feeling is that too many of these requests are getting approval from HR without adequate scrutiny. If we are serious as an institution about flexible working then the default should be’ jobshare friendly’ unless a very good case is made to the contrary.

Similarly, where requests are made for flexible working, junior managers should not be allowed to sit in judgement on staff careers by making a ‘case’ that on the face of it meets the flexible working legislation, but in reality is paper thin. At least one member of staff has been forced out of a job after refusal of a jobshare request following maternity leave, the role being deemed ‘too technical’ to be shared.

The reality is that very few roles cannot be run successfully as jobshares, given the right partners and a manager willing and capable of managing them. Again, the impression we get is that managers can’t be bothered to manage two people in a role and take the easy option.

Standing by people when they experience problems is not only about keeping hold of valuable staff members, it also sends a message about our organisation’s values. All employees need to see that their organisation lives its values and treats its people well. Trust and integrity are key drivers of engagement and organisations that support staff reap the benefits in terms of loyalty and commitment from all its employees.

If members have experienced problems at work, please get in touch and give us your feedback about how the issues were handled.

Phil Henshaw SRD steward