From the unique position of simultaneously a Unionist and a Medical Physician, I note with growing alarm the steep rise in the number of CU staff presented to the Health Clinic with work- related stress symptoms over the past few years. While it could be argued I might be seeing a bigger share of sickness related to work because of the natural patient selection of doctors they believe would be sympathetic to their plight, but for me this has always been the case for as long as I've worked in CU, so the actual increase in number is real and is worrying .
The complaints range from physical symptoms of easy fatigue, headaches, dizziness, palpitations, upset stomachs and irritable bowel syndrome, muscle aches and impaired immune system leading to frequent infections , to psychological symptoms of poor concentration, short temper, negative thoughts, insomnia, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, mood swings, burnouts and even thoughts of suicide . Work stress not only leads to poor health but increases accidents and injuries, frequent absenteeism and high turnover rates . Staff under undue stress are more liable to make wrong decisions, and develop poor relationship with their colleagues which in turn generates more stress. Many patients have problem maintaining work-life-family balance, and feel guilty because their low moods are affecting their family .
The stressors as far as I could see fall into several categories :
1) Workload issues .
Many OA and general clerks have complained : 20 years ago when they first started work in CU there's just one of them to serve the whole department, now the department has grown multi-fold, but there's still just one of them to carry out all the work. One OA's afraid to take annual leave because the whole week's waste-baskets from the whole building would await her return. For the same reason many cannot afford to take sick leave however unwell they might be.
Another frequent complaint : because of the high turnover of staff, many long serving permanent staff end up doing the bulk of the work in the department because they know the ropes, thereby greatly increasing their workload. Unfair distribution of workload and lazy slackers who unload their share of work on their colleagues are all stressors. At the other end of the scale under-workload also generates stress. One general clerk with an excellent track record had all her usual work details removed from her after a new supervisor was appointed, which she believes to be a prelude to redundancy as there'd be nothing to enter in her appraisal at the end of the year. Under-utilize and deny a person from exercising her/his potential leads to low self-esteem and low job satisfaction.
2) Long working hours.
Many staff have complained they almost never get out of the office before 7 or 8 PM. Some even have to work till 11PM some nights.
3) Common Complaints on Management.
A) Lack of support and ambiguous management style:
The supervisor's dismissive and unhelpful when the staff requests instructions, then the staff's reprimanded for not doing exactly how the supervisor wants. " If I ask for instruction as what to do I'm told off for lack of initiation, if I don't ask I'm yelled at for not having asked and being disrespectful . I just can't do anything right but I can't read the mind of the supervisor."
B) Lack of appreciation from supervisors:
" We only hear criticisms when things are not going well, but never praises when things are swimmimg "" We do the work, they take the credit "
C) Autocratic management style:
Lack of control in the discharge of duties is a stressor for the front-line staff. " The supervisor expects me to drop whatever I was doing to do her bide, then yells at me for not having finished what I was initially working on!" " Everything's top priority and has a tight deadline, but it's humanly impossible to do everything all at once. If they could explain more about the work then maybe I can prioritise "
D) Micro-management style:
" I'm stressed out! All day long the supervisor follows me everywhere and wipe her finger over everything I've just cleaned. Doesn't she has anything else to do ? I can't take it anymore "
E) Unfair and hostile treatment from supervisors :
Grievances abound and too numerous and diverse to enumerate, suffice to say there's enough staff on anxiolytics and antidepressants for this to be taken seriously.
F) Poor communication within the department :
The Heads of departments are frequently unaware of the problems of the junior staff either because they're away a lot or because the supervisors, in order to appear competent, hide problems from them. As one Clerk said, "When I talked to my supervisor about work stress she said there's no work stress, of course she has no work stress because she dumps all the work on ME ! The Head knows nothing about this ."
4) Interpersonal conflicts .
Wherever there're people there's inevitably interpersonal conflicts, unfortunately CU's a hot bed of gossip-mongering and the system's opaque enough and loose enough for personal and work issues to be enmeshed , and personal issues taken out at work .
5) Job insecurity .
Contract terms has created a lot of tension between contract and permanent staff, supervisors on contract have been known to take out their frustration on permanent staff. Lack of job security and worries about redundancy is of course anxiety-provoking .
6) Insufficient resources at the frontline .
CU is a classic case of too many generals and too few foot soldiers.
7) Performance appraisal system still needs a lot of improvement as it continuous to cause distress among staff.
8) Bullying in the workplace is still an on-going problem.
9) Staff personal issues :
Unrealistic expectation of reward, over-estimation of own ability , co-existing family, financial and relationship problems , low resilient or pessimistic personality type all pre-disposes to work stress .
Suggestions for Organisational Management of work stress :
1) CU has to create an organisational culture that values each individual employee as a crucial component and asset, and enforces management actions to be in line with such value . Too often one hears " I'm just a small potato, my position is low, my views don't matter. " or "During meetings I'd keep quiet, the seniors've already decided everything and just want me to rubber stamp the meeting anyway "Empowerment is the first step to stress management, and all staff should be made to feel an important stakeholder of the University whatever post they may hold .
2) Training for managers and supervisors on stress recognition, and appropriate techniques for handling internal conflicts and complaints as early as possible. Not to forget managers and supervisors can suffer work stress too . In fact one of the reasons behind writing his article was the realisation that the supervisor and a junior staff of one department're both seeing me for depression ! Which makes me think either there's something very wrong with the department or with CU .
3) Clearly defined roles and responsibilities of each job, so at last there won't be anymore clerk I washing the crockery and qualified technicians taking out the garbish .
4) Provide sufficient resources, appropriate workload and flexible work flow, this can only happen when there's open and effective communication and information sharing within the department .
5) Sufficient communication channels ( hotlines or suggestion boxes ) between staff, the department and the University management, afterall employees often know the needs the best .
6) Promote team building and team spirit as a policy for all departments .
7) Strengthen social support networks in the workplace and provide fitness facilities . A word : CUSA has long been frustrated by the lack of venue to host recreational activities for staff !
8) Appropriate training for staff to deal with advancing technology in the workplace and generate opportunities for career development if possible .
9) Set up Occupational Health Policy and conduct periodic Occupational Health Studies . This is in line with the Healthy University Campus Concept .
10) Conduct regular Stress Audits to all employees.
11) Regular review of overtime pattern.
12) Reasonable and transparent merit and demerit system so there's no innuendoes and second- guessings .
13) Organise talks on Stress Management.
Let's hope the New Year will bring new hope and better working environment to all colleagues in CU !
( This article was published in the CUSA newsletter, 23 edition, feb 2013 )