Risk of tribunals increases with rise of flexible, insecure contracts, finds research

Study shows lack of control over work patterns harms employee mental health

Employers could be facing a raft of employment tribunal claims from ‘the new workforce’ as research has found that ‘manager controlled flexible scheduling’ has a clear impact on employee mental health.

According to research from the University of Cambridge, rising job insecurity and uncertainty brought about by zero hours contracts (ZHC), short hours or minimum hour contracts, and even flexi contracts, has led to a significant increase in work-related stress.

At a panel event this week, Alex Wood, research associate in the department of sociology at the University of Cambridge, said that employers had got into the habit of changing people’s hours to match the demand, rather than fitting work around individuals and their needs.

However, Health and Safety Executive management standards require employers to consult employees over their work patterns, Wood said, which requires a “two-way partnership” between manager and staff member.

But through his research into retail workers in both the UK and the US, Wood found that employees on insecure contracts rarely had control over their working hours, or a choice of when to take time off, and were given inadequate pre-warning of a change in hours or cancelled shifts.

“The pressure on people has increased significantly since the recession and since the rise in flexible working contracts,” said Peter Kelly, chair of the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology. Workers are forced to wait to see if you are going to be called in for a shift or if they are going to get additional hours next week, so “their alert is always on”, he explained.

Combining research from the European Working Conditions survey and World Health Organisation Wellbeing scale, Dr Brendan Burchell, head of sociology department at the University of Cambridge, said: “Every single aspect of flexible scheduling was associated with poorer wellbeing.”

The latest figures from the ONS suggest that there are now 1.5 million people across the UK employed on a ZHC, and while the CIPD research shows that not everybody’s experience of working under such terms and conditions is negative, Kelly said employers and policy have been slow to catch up with the changing face of work.

“We are in the middle of a recession, this is now the norm, not a period of time that will blow over,” Kelly said. “This is the new manifestation of work and we have to determine how to manage and legislate around it.”

Gerwyn Davis said that CIPD research had shown that ZHC workers are marginally more satisfiedwith work and life; are happy with less hours and less workload. But when it came to short or minimum hour contract workers, they were actually getting far fewer hours a week than those on ZHC.

But, he said: “The solution isn’t to turn to excessive regulation which could lead to further disruption and push employers to use more agency workers.”

Wood suggested a transfer from ‘manager controlled scheduling’, to ‘worker controlled flexibility scheduling’ to allow employees more control would mitigate the cost of managing a disengaged ZHC worker; would reduce the UK’s health bill for the millions of employees working under such conditions, and could also save employers the expense of a tribunal claim.

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