Why Ireland's employment laws need a revamp to reflect 'techno-stress'

It’s time for employers to address the causes of work-relaxed anxiety.

By Gareth Murphy Financial Services Union

THERE IS NO doubt that technology is becoming more important and prevalent in jobs and working lives. From clocking in systems to real-time monitoring and tracking, tech has an impact on more and more daily tasks.

But workers often report feeling both empowered and enslaved by mobile devices and out-of-hours work.

While devices can help you stay on top of things while on the move, they also encourage and facilitate staff clocking in on their downtime and facilitate a 24-hour cycle of emails and messaging.

This is why workers can feel the contradictory response of both empowerment and enslavement toward the same technology and its usage.

Work-related stress, particularly ‘techno-stress’, is arguably the health and safety issue of this century. It’s not uncommon for employees to report that they suffer from depression or anxiety because of issues at work.

Symptoms

Research commissioned by the Financial Services Union in a large bank, conducted by the Ulster University, found a shocking six out of 10 workers surveyed felt they were suffering from poor well-being.

Some 45% of respondents felt their work was negatively affected by micro-management. This research led members of our union to put forward a motion in 2018 that specifically called out ‘techno stress’.

Techno stress can cause interrupted sleep, anxiety, depression and physical symptoms like headaches and muscle pain. It can result in burnout of workers. It can falsely disguise serious under-staffing problems and companies profiteering off under-employment and over-work.

We have now partnered with a research team in the University of Limerick, led by Dr Michelle O’Sullivan, specifically looking into the impact of technology on work and jobs in finance in particular.

We have already commenced discussions with a number of employers on new collective agreements that protect and future-proof decent jobs and decent work in the context of new technology.

Protection

Workers need the protection of new collective agreements but current health and safety legislation in Ireland also needs updating to reflect modern challenges. The problem with the legislative environment on this issue is that it was not specifically written with techno-stress, or even general work-related stress, in mind.

Health and safety regulations and legislation are largely of a ‘trips-and-slips’ nature. They were written with more traditional issues in mind.

While legislation does provide for a legal duty of care on employers to employees, the remedy in law is usually costly and complex personal injury litigation and not intervention by unions or regulatory authorities to remove the causes of stress in the workplace.

Amendment to existing acts or new legislation is required to make the causes of work-related stress an actionable wrong. Access for trade union officials to investigate workplaces is required to provide confidence to staff to raise issues and be protected.

It is not good enough to merely try equip workers with coping mechanisms like well-being programmes, emotional intelligence courses or cognitive behavioural therapy. We need a statutory framework for prosecuting negligent employers and for union inspection to make safe working environments.

When there is an oil spillage, you don’t teach workers to walk around it – you clean and remove it.

We need to clean up the causes of work-related stress in modern working environments and ensure that the empowerment response to technology dominates over feelings of enslavement.

Gareth Murphy is the acting general secretary of the Financial Services Union.

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