As a case worker for the UCU at my University I have had the unfortunate experience of having to deal with Occupational Health (OH) services on a number of occasions. There are many ways in which management can punish their workforce and one of the most painful forms is the compulsory visit to OH that any institution can demand of a worker who has been off with a long-term illness. I am currently dealing with the case of a colleague who has been subject to institutional victimisation of a most outrageous kind with the university effectively attempting to frame him for selling exam papers to students. They have no evidence for this and indeed the case was investigated by the police who refused to press charges against him as presumably they had no evidence. The lack of evidence was not enough to discourage his Head of School from having him suspended pending an investigation into his role in the case of the stolen exam papers. I won’t go into the details here as the case is ongoing but having examined the documentation produced by the university it is quite clear that they have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to make something stick. Thus they have trawled through his work emails over a period of 4 years in order to cut and paste sentences into a narrative that proves his guilt. In fairness to the university when we questioned the context in which these statements had originally been made they kindly sent us 4000 pages of printed versions of the emails so that we could go through them in order to build his defence. He is forbidden from access to his email account.
My colleague works in a business school and they tend to have greater autonomy than any other academic department due to their financial power. It is one part of the university where every Vice-Chancellor’s dream of an effective business-university relationship works very well. What the motivation of my colleagues Head of School is in this case is difficult to say. He is popularly regarded by those who work with him, as I have come to find out, as a bully, a megalomaniac, cruel and vindictive. Certainly this particular case seems to support that view. It is possible that he is pursuing this charge against a very junior colleague simply because he can and as an example of his tough management. Anyone who has worked in a large-scale, hierarchical organisation knows full well how even the smallest degree of power and authority tends to be given to those who are willing to use it over their colleagues. And unfortunately there is often a tendency for exactly the worst kind of people to be attracted to these posts. After all, no decent person would want to do such a thing.
My colleague has been off work for several months pending his hearing while the university build their case. This in itself has been disastrous for his health with the predictable work-related stress, high blood pressure and depression. Indeed, he had been suspended for 6 months before he even informed the union of his circumstances. Since then it has been a question of trying to build a defence and challenge his accusers. Sadly he has recently been diagnosed with hyper-tension and depression with a recorded high BP of 172/115, a condition that places him the high-risk category for heart attacks and strokes. His doctor has told him to take complete rest and have nothing to do with his case. This meant the postponement of his hearing, much to the annoyance of the university. However, the university has a variety of weapons to use and so turned to the OH service as a stick with which to beat him.
The university use an outside firm to carry out their OH service, a form of privatised bullying and harassment. It effectively enables the university to wash its hands of any responsibility for the persecution of its employees. Thus when my colleague attended his meeting with OH he was subject to a series of unpleasant accusations and a hostile hearing. Before the meeting he was confident enough to attend it without my presence. In theory OH are an independent service but in practice they are simply an extension of the institution. One assumes that their service wins contracts and gains success by forcing people back to work quickly and before they are properly ready to do so. I effect they work by getting ill workers to accept that the illness is their own responsibility, not the institutions. Again, the psychology of OH people is as morbidly fascinating as that of the Head of School who is leading the persecution. Here we have someone who, under the guise of being a part of the medical profession, occupies a job whose role is to harass and bully workers on a daily basis. Thus my colleague was told that he should: ’attend his hearing as soon as possible as it would be good for his health to get it out of the way’, ‘just because you have work-related stress doesn’t mean that it is the institutions fault, it might be because the job is too much for you’, ‘you shouldn’t take a holiday to rest and recuperate, you need to stay and try to get back to work’. The meeting was carried out in a tone of scepticism as to his health, clearly beginning from the assumption that he (and no doubt every other worker who they attend to) was faking it. After an hour of grilling him the OH took his BP and found that it was now 190/115. Naturally they couldn’t accept this, ‘the machine must be wrong,’ but grudgingly agreed that he wasn’t fit to attend his hearing. When he came to my office after the meeting he was in a terrible state and thinking of simply running away from the university for good and giving them what they wanted. I encouraged him to go home and rest and take time to go and visit his family (overseas).
The moral of this account is sadly familiar but bears repeating. Even in relatively privileged and elite occupations such as academia, the institution still regards you, in practice, as just another disposable worker, even more disposable should you feel ill. After all, your illness might be your own fault, as OH like to suggest.
1. The union is responding by protesting to the university that this is a case of bullying and proposing the following:
· 2. All staff asked to attend OH do so with a colleague or UCU member.
· 3. That the OH company apologise to our union colleague for their treatment of him.
· 4. The Union will contact all members of the branch to inform them of what has happened. We will send them a draft letter which we will ask them to send to the university HR department and the OH company protesting at this treatment and practice.
· 5. That the university provides us with clear guidelines as to what is expected of an OH meeting for an employee and that these are issued to any OH company they employ.
· 6. That any OH firm is made accountable to a joint university/union body to ensure compliance with these guidelines.
· 7. That if the university does not agree to this then we will consult with UCU colleagues with a view to a vote of no confidence in the OH service and that members should boycott it until these issues have been addressed.
The story is ongoing…
For more on OH see http://www.lrd.org.uk/issue.php?pagid=1&issueid=288