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HR Changes Can Increase Stress

January 21 2008 - Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Future of Work programme has found that teamworking and other contemporary employment practices can put as much strain on a woman's family relationships as working an extra 120 hours a year.

The study by Patrick McGovern, Stephen Hill, Colin Mills and Michael White entitled Market, Class, and Employment found significant changes in British job prospects and conditions over the period 1984-2004. Despite competitive market pressures employers have maintained long-term career relationships with their employees. However, introduction of practices such as team-based forms of work organization, individual performance-related pay, and an emphasis on development of individual potential has demanded greater effort and higher performance.

Researchers found that while these human resource management practices are thought to improve staff morale and to form an essential element in successful business performance, the resulting stress has an adverse impact on employees' family relationships. Women are generally more affected than men and are less likely to get support from male partners also in pressurized jobs. Both are more likely to experience anxiety about childcare.

Researchers highlight ICT surveillance as a significant new source of strain at work. They found that 52 per cent of all employees (20 per cent of workplaces) have their work monitored by computerised systems. This has led to a sharp increase in work-related stress reflected in feelings of exhaustion and anxiety. The study found an overall 7.5 per cent increase among employees subject to ICT surveillance compared with those in similar jobs supervised in more traditional ways. Administrative and white-collar staff in settings such as call centres reported a 10 per cent increase.

Michael White commented:

"Computers and IT systems are bringing surveillance to most workplaces. Now for the first time we can see how this development is damaging employees' well-being."

Researchers found that recent US employment practices have not been replicated in Britain. It might have been assumed that highly competitive market conditions would result in both private and public sector employers resorting to hire and fire practices, temporary jobs and a decline in training and career planning. While British employers continue to use redundancy to adjust employee numbers, in general they remain committed to retention and long-term development.

The study found that the proportion in permanent employment remains above 90 per cent and increased during the 1990s. Fixed-term or casual employment grew in the 1980s but declined in the subsequent decade. Researchers argue that increased use of communication techniques, employee participation, team organization, training and development, and performance rewards are indicative of efforts to maintain a long-term workforce.

Researchers suggest that the decline in trade union recognition and membership could increase the chances of unfair treatment but found that this has been mitigated in part by a growth in alternative forms of employee engagement such as meetings with management and consultation. The study found that by 2000 about one third of employees were participating in individual pay bargaining. Researchers note that this is more likely to occur in non-unionized workplaces and is leading to increasing inequality. Managers and professionals are more likely to negotiate personal pay deals; women are less likely to bargain over pay when recruited or to be represented by a union. Thus the ability of women to challenge the gender pay gap is doubly limited.

The research concluded that class differences in job rewards have increased since the early 1990s. Pay inequality increased between 1992 and 2000, reflecting substantial increases in average earnings for senior managers and significant though lower gains for other managers. Pay for individuals in semi-routine and routine occupations either saw no real increase or declined.

Other benefits such as occupational pensions, sickness pay and paid holidays also showed a marked class difference in favour of higher managerial and professional groups which tended to increase over time. There was a similar gap in job desirability, reflecting both pay and other factors such as flexibility and autonomy. Researchers conclude that inequality in pay and benefits will probably continue to grow. Managers and professionals are more able than other groups to benefit from increasing opportunities for personal pay bargaining and performance deals.

Patrick McGovern commented:

"The major story about work in Britain is not that it has become more precarious or fragmented, rather it has become more demanding while the returns have become more unequal. The major winners in the so-called new economy are professional and managerial employees who have actually moved further ahead of the rest of the labour force."

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