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A culture of long working hours is leading to a rise in sickness, stress and industrial action, according to a survey of 550 senior HR professionals representing a combined workforce of more than two million employees.

Nearly 60% of HR professionals surveyed reported an increase in the number of additional hours worked by staff in the past 12 months – the highest rise in all the areas researched for the State of HR Survey, conducted by King’s College London and law firm Speechly Bircham.

Further analysis found significant associations between additional hours worked and increased absence/sickness levels, stress related problems and the number of grievances lodged. Some 30% of those surveyed said grievances had risen in 2010, with relations with senior and line managers the biggest source of grievance, followed by bullying and harassment.

Firms that expect increases in working hours over the next 12 months are also expecting rises in grievances, stress and absence. Relations with senior and line managers are expected to be the number one source of grievance in 2011 with pay and conditions second.

“This year’s results should worry all business leaders and HR directors as the results question the sustainability of current strategies to keep workforces performing at the required level,” warned Stuart Woollard, managing director of King’s HRM learning board.

“Organisations must carefully consider the likelihood of erosion in employee productivity, work quality and performance as a consequence of lean workforces and additional working hours. With an apparent leadership/management disconnect with staff, firms may also not realise the nature and extent of the problems ahead.”

This is the third year of the report and the results show that strategies to foster better management/employee relations and reduce bullying and harassment are not working.

“This year’s survey findings send out a clear warning to employers,” added Richard Martin, partner and head of employment at Speechly Bircham. “The combination of increased workplace conflict, longer hours and rising stress levels is a potent cocktail, which would lead to a significant rise in tribunals and industrial action if not properly addressed.”

The report also finds the size of pay rises decreasing in more than half of organisations during 2010 and budgets for remuneration and training continuing to fall. General staff recruitment, graduate and temporary worker hiring have also slumped.

Overall, more than three-quarters of HR professionals surveyed (77%) said the prevailing economic difficulties were having a negative impact on organisations. However, there was a modest improvement in financial services, business services and manufacturing compared to last year.

Employee engagement remains the primary HR strategy for 2011, with two-thirds of organisations saying this is their key HR issue. The most popular strategy to enhance engagement is though more effective leadership and management, but initiatives such as job design, employee participation and procedural fairness have a more powerful impact, the report says.

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