Features: September 10th, 2010

By Kevin Young

Becoming redundant creates extreme stress. But redundancy also creates high stress levels in those who remain. Budget cuts mean change and change management skills need to be learned. The work of ex-colleagues has to be shared around and new skills are usually required. The author describes how this demand for new skills creates stress and explains what can be done to keep the stress levels down.

It’s probably harder to spend £83 billion than it is to save it – especially when the savings are actually cuts to be made in the public sector over the next four years. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the Treasury’s plans, there will be many casualties in the fallout, not least employment as an unprecedented jobs cull looks set across all departments.

When the recession first hit the UK in early 2008, the private sector – especially the construction and manufacturing industries – bore the brunt, whilst the public sector continued to grow. Indeed, after an unprecedented expansion of the public sector over the last decade, many of today’s 29 million strong workforce has been unused to dealing with tough conditions or workplace insecurity.

Today, things are very different, with spending cuts of 25% planned across most departments, thousands more jobs will be at risk and widespread workplace anxiety among the six million plus public sector employees looks set to grow as the government attempts to tackle the budget deficit.

As part of its ‘Mental Health at Work Week’ campaign, the mental health charity MIND last month presented compelling evidence of the effects of the recession on the psyche of British workers. In a recent wide-ranging survey, it emerged that while losing a job can be devastating, many employees still in work are also suffering from depression as overstretched staff and resources struggle to cope.

According to MIND’s recent poll of 2,050 workers, one in ten has visited a GP because of stress and 7% have started taking anti-depressant medication in an attempt to tackle problems at work. Other associated threats to the mental health of workers included 50% reporting low staff morale, 28% working longer hours and a third saying the overhanging threat to jobs means staff are having to compete with one another, creating further anxiety.

Employers and management across both the private and public sectors are beginning to take notice as the impact – both personal and financial – starts to be felt. It is estimated that UK businesses are losing £26 billion and 70 million working days each year due to stress at work, which is now officially the second biggest cause of workplace sickness absence.

As part of its ‘Taking Care of Business’ campaign which ran in May 2010, MIND enlisted the services of TV entrepreneur Duncan Ballantyne, who acknowledges that many employees today are fearful of both redundancy and of the viability of the businesses in which they work. But he also believes the recession has been a good time for businesses to be looking after their staff. “You’ve got to look after your staff. If you haven’t got staff, you haven’t got a business. It’s as simple as that,” he says.

The message is that although there is great anxiety on the part of those who have lost jobs, there are many others who are coping with the extra demands of working harder, for longer hours and under greater pressures – and often ill equipped or untrained for the roles they are trying to perform.

Added responsibilities

Further independent research commissioned by e-learning provider SkillSoft, fleshes out the attitudes of those struggling to cope with added responsibilities arising from staff cutbacks and being required to do more than their usual duties. In a survey of more than 2,000 employees of medium to large businesses across the UK and Europe last year, a third of stressed workers say they are trying to do jobs they are not properly trained for, because of cutbacks in the workplace.

On top of this, over three-quarters of those surveyed believed they would be more effective and productive in their jobs if the right learning opportunities were made available to them. Traditional classroom training, aside from not always being appropriate, was not thought to be adequate for their needs; almost half felt that classroom training had only been partially useful in the past whereas an overwhelming 87% would prefer to learn at their own pace rather than that of a teacher in a classroom environment. According to the 2009 SkillSoft survey, the top three workplace stress factors for the year ahead were company changes that affect them and their jobs, fear of redundancy and increased workload through having to take on others’ work.

Perhaps less widely-reported are the effects on managers, many of whom have been under extra pressure or even promoted beyond their capabilities and given too much responsibility – for which, in many instances, they are ill equipped to cope.

Forward thinking

But there are forward thinkers in the public sector who, faced with the task of downsizing, restructuring and otherwise recalibrating their agencies, have already embraced the efficiencies provided by e-learning to the advantage of their departments and workforces.

Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust provides hospital services to over 400,000 people in South West England. As part of its three year budget deficit programme – known as Trust Turnaround – it will embrace new technologies around learning and development that reskill and redeploy its staff fast and cost-effectively. The Trust will use SkillSoft’s Books 24×7 – which provides access to over 25,000 digitised IT and business books – as the core of a blended learning approach at the heart of its programme.

The Trust will access SkillSoft’s e-learning solutions that help employees to expand their knowledge or cross train in the office by learning at their own pace. The advantage to employees is that they are provided with help and support, and for employers, the on-site learning means no costly absences. The Trust’s John Newell, who is heading up the turnaround, was impatient to implement the learning and development programme and believes SkillSoft can support the turnaround on a number of different levels.

“First, SkillSoft’s e-learning offering will provide ready access to the managerial and change management skills we need and at low cost. Secondly, as part of our turnaround, a lot of staff will have to redeploy across the organisation and will have to reskill. Those staff can tap into the SkillSoft solutions and other learning programmes to sharpen existing skills, retrain and improve knowledge in the relevant areas. During this period of change, e-learning needs to form part of our overall learning strategy – whether it’s for induction, re-skilling, or management and leadership training for our senior management, everyone should have access because everyone can benefit,” says Newell.

At a time of unprecedented financial cutbacks across almost every sector, the efficiency, flexibility, popularity and affordability of online learning can provide employers with the tools they need to manage change. Workers too will be provided with the learning opportunities that help them to redefine their roles – and their health – throughout the recovery.

Kevin Young is with SkillSoft