news analysis pieces on performance related pay and stress at work

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To help it recruit and retain staff, a London borough whose
social services department is on special measures is resorting to a
pay system that has been found wanting elsewhere.
Anabel Unity Sale gauges its chances of
success.

It is appraisal time again. But instead of the usual rigmarole
about whether reviews are handled correctly or the phone answered
with enough zing, your line manager may have a proposal. Meet a few
agreed targets, and you’ll get a pay rise.

Cynics may greet the prospect of performance-related pay (PRP)
for social work with scepticism. But for Newham Council’s 300
social workers, including those at team manager level, it is to
become a reality.

The east London borough is planning to introduce a new pay
scheme from this October, whereby all social workers who get
satisfactory appraisals and meet performance targets receive an
annual bonus of £1,500 from April 2002.

It is a controversial decision by Newham, whose social services
department has been under special measures since February. PRP is
one of several measures discussed in a report by the council’s
cabinet committee on recruitment and retention strategy for social
services. It concludes that social workers’ pay in Newham has
“fallen behind the market rate for this type of work”.

But won’t there be problems between social workers who get the
bonus and those who don’t? Not according to Kathryn Hudson,
Newham’s director of social services. She says: “This approach to
PRP is not divisive because it enables all social workers to be
paid the bonus if their work is assessed as satisfactory.”

She is also keen to iron out any hitches PRP may involve. She
says: “We are prepared to be flexible and to adapt and learn as we
go along.”

But the introduction of PRP is opposed by Newham Unison branch
chairperson Michael Gavan. He says: “The system has so many
possibilities for unfairness and inequalities. It only needs a
situation where the manager doesn’t get on with a member of staff,
and all of a sudden the additional payment that was rightfully
theirs is withheld.”

For those social workers who do not get their annual bonus,
Gavan says Unison is setting up an appeals procedure that is
“robust, fair and transparent”. He adds: “This is a warning to the
council that if it messes our members about, we are prepared to
take industrial action.”

He doubts that Newham’s PRP scheme will be successful. “I think
PRP will disappear and become an annual bonus, which is how it
should be,” he says.

Association of Directors of Social Services senior vice
president Mike Leadbetter says he disagrees with PRP both
“professionally and personally”.

He says: “I am unconvinced of its value. There are other and
more appropriate incentives for staff than PRP. People want things
such as adequate training, a decent working culture and the
opportunity to progress.”

PRP, he says, does not work well in environments where teamwork
is necessary. “All of us depend on our teams to deliver the goods.
The concept of setting targets and, when they are achieved,
rewarding one person – when the whole team helped achieve them -
does not work. It just does not make sense.”

Leadbetter speaks from personal experience. Essex Council, where
he has been director of social services since 1993, used PRP when
he first joined the authority. He actively campaigned to have PRP
scrapped “because I thought it was divisive”, and in 1997 the
system was brought to an end.

Other councils, he says, are not likely to adopt the Newham
approach to pay. “Evidence about what keeps staff is that pay is
important, but is not the only important thing.”

Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social
Workers, is also critical of tying pay to performance.

He says such a system may lead a council’s social services
department to focus on outcomes – so social workers hit their
targets – rather than on preventive work. “It is a perverse
incentive to focus on the wrong things. This may push a council
further down the line where they respond to crises rather than do
preventive work,” he explains. And he warns: “Social workers may be
rewarded for saving money rather than spending it.”

Johnston says BASW would prefer to see higher salaries paid to
social workers across the board “to reflect the complex and
demanding nature of their jobs”.

Social workers are not the only ones unhappy with PRP. Those
working in the NHS dropped PRP in the 1990s “like a hot potato”
according to John Northrop, director of the NHS body Pay and
Workforce Research. He says: “Most people, particularly people in
the NHS, are risk-averse and do not like a high proportion of their
income being variable.”

He says the concept of people needing an incentive to work is
irrelevant to nurses and social workers: “It seems obvious to me
that people in the NHS, or the public sector, do not work in it for
the money.”

Northrop agrees with Leadbetter that PRP has potentially
“divisive” effects in the workplace. He says: “It is difficult to
get people to work effectively as a team if you are paying them
different amounts of money. If staff are on PRP, they may not want
to help their colleagues if it means they are not going to meet
their own targets.”

While Newham Council maintains PRP is the way forward, others
from inside and outside the sector believe it is not. But whether
the borough’s social workers will themselves embrace PRP remains to
be seen.

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Stress at work is a recognised problem and many employers have
strategies to deal with it. But a recent case illustrates how
recruitment and retention problems, coupled with management regimes
that fail to act on stress, could lead to more court appearances
for social work managers. Alex Dobson
reports.

For four years Thelma Conway struggled to get someone to heed
her warnings that her job was undermining her health and wrecking
her life. Nobody, she says, would listen and as a result she
suffered a stress-related illness.

Last week she was awarded an out-of-court settlement of
£140,000. Her employers, Worcestershire Council, admitted
liability and publicly apologised for the harm done to her and her
family.

Conway is the latest of several social workers and other public
sector employees who have sought and gained compensation for stress
at work. Pay-outs for stress-related illness are now estimated to
be costing employers in the UK around £5 billion every
year.

Although Conway was an experienced social worker with more than
20 years of coping with the demands of a difficult job, she says
she eventually found herself in an impossible situation. She and
her union, Unison, say that her experiences show how employers are
still failing to heed the warning signs.

She began working in a residential home for people with learning
difficulties in Redditch in 1994. “I had only been working there
for about one month and there were problems in the home,” she
says.

“There were poor management practices in operation and the
manager was suspended and eventually left. I was working as the
deputy officer in charge, which meant that I was working as a
deputy manager.

“Of course once the manager was suspended, there were people
coming in to fill as temporaries, working as acting officers in
charge. Basically they were just there to make sure the place
ticked over. I just carried on working, although it was very
difficult and then I finally asked my line manager when we were
going to have an officer in charge, and he replied, ‘You are the
officer in charge’. I was not trained to be a manager, and I did
not have enough back-up.

“After that the stress of the job just builds up. It just creeps
up on you. There isn’t one day when you think you can’t actually
cope, but the pressure keeps building up all the time. Eventually
you come to the point where you can’t go on any more. I was unable
to sleep, I had awful mood swings. It was the worst time of my life
and it affected every aspect of my life, my children, my marriage
and even my grandchildren, because my life was being destroyed by
the stress I was under.

“I was working about an 80-hour week, and I was struggling
because I had not been given any extra training. I kept saying that
I could not cope and that I desperately needed someone to listen to
me. In April 1997 I went off sick for a month with stress and when
I went back I was told that I would get all the help and support
that was out there, all the training that was needed for me and the
staff.

“But it just never materialised even though the County
Inspectorate reported that the home needed a competent manager. I
was not competent enough to do the job. I was employed as a deputy
and not a manager. I struggled on but it was intolerable and I
became ill.

“It was the worst four years I’ve ever lived through. It could
have been avoided if someone had simply listened. I kept telling
everyone that I was struggling and I felt I was letting people
down. Normally I am a very confident bubbly person but stress
destroyed a lot of things in my life. It still upsets me when I
think about what it has done to myself and my family.”

Conway’s experiences are similar to those in many other public
sector cases where employees have sought compensation for the
stresses at work. In most of these cases, the individuals involved
had hitherto had long and successful working lives.

Simon Dewsbury of Thompson’s solicitors, which act for Unison
and were the solicitors for Conway and other cases such as Ingram,
Lancaster and Walker, says: “The majority of cases that succeed are
those where an employee has told their employer of the stress that
they have suffered and have had to take time off work because of
the stress. They then return and the stress has remained the same.
The crucial point is that the employers knew – or should have known
- that there was a problem, and failed to deal with it.

“If you can show that the way that the job was set up means that
stress is foreseeable, you could then show that there was a breach
of health and safety law. It would need to be in situations where
the risk of stress was such that it was reasonable to take
preventive measures.”

Ian Johnston of the British Association of Social Workers says
that although there is now more recognition of stress in social
work, there are still too many examples of bad management
practice.

“The situation has not improved in the way that it should have
in relation to staff well-being, although there is greater
recognition now about the situation that social workers face and
how bad it can be,” he says.

“But there are still too many bad management practices that
allow employees to be left struggling and feeling that they are
complaining and inadequate if they try to draw attention to what is
happening. There is not enough recognition that people need help
and support in different situations.

“As social workers we know about human beings and how they can
react to situations and we should be able to help. There is a very
serious issue in this country in the way that the work ethic
demands unrealistic deadlines and forces people to pretend that
they can cope with situations that are out of their control.

“We need to acknowledge that often we are just papering over the
cracks and putting people in impossible situations. One of the
measures that we would like to see is the Department of Health
issuing minimum staffing levels. But they won’t do that. If they
really care about standards then why not do that? Why should
somebody be expected to cope if their colleague is off sick, when
they are already under pressure and struggling?

“That is happening day in day out, and with the acute shortage
of workers it is something that is going to go on.”

A spokesperson for Worcestershire Council said that they had no
comment to make other than that they had admitted liability in the
Conway case.

Dewsbury points out that there is an increasing duty on
employers to be proactive and to make assessments, including
evaluating the risk of stress. They have been required to do that
for the last five years.

Many who have been involved in high-profile stress cases see
something of an irony in the apparent inability of social work to
assess risks faced by its own staff. Managers expect social workers
to assess risks faced by clients on a daily, hourly basis, but it
seems that too often they themselves are unable to identify the
unhealthy stresses and strains borne by their own staff.

Landmark stress cases

John Walker (1994)

Made legal history when he became the first person to show that
his employers were liable for the stress he had suffered while
working as a senior social worker for Northumberland Council. As
his caseload became increasingly heavy he repeatedly asked for
extra staff and more administrative back-up. His requests were
refused. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was off work for five
months. When he returned to work, his workload had not been reduced
and he later suffered a second breakdown and he retired on medical
grounds. He was given compensation of £175,000.

Randy Ingram (1998)

Ingram worked as a warden on travellers’ sites in Worcester. He
was experienced and capable but problems began when he was given
responsibility for additional sites where there was a history of
trouble. Randy suffered abusive and violent behaviour at the hands
of a group of residents. He began to suffer increasing feelings of
isolation and powerlessness. He was the third warden on the site to
suffer from a stress-related illness. In 1998 the council
recognised that there were serious problems and carried out its own
internal inquiry, which was critical of the way the sites were
managed. Ingram was awarded record damages of £203,000 for the
stress-related illness he suffered.

Beverley Lancaster (1999)

Worked as a housing officer for Birmingham Council. Won
£67,000 in damages for work-related stress which forced her to
retire at 41 on ill-health grounds. She was promised training and
support, but did not get it.

 

 

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