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Employee relations taking up more time than ever for HR

New research has revealed that Employee Relations (ER) issues are taking up more time than ever for HR professionals – with 47 per cent claiming that they are dealing with more ER issues now than they were prior to the pandemic. Respondents gave a variety of reasons for this, including an increase in grievances.

Since March 2020, there has been perhaps the largest revolution in working practices and seismic shifts in employer-employee relations in history. In this post-pandemic hybrid world, HR professionals face a whole new array of challenges – including navigating evolving employee expectations and legislation changes.

Outside of the obvious ripple effects of the pandemic, at Wade Macdonald we were eager to understand the challenges HR teams are facing this year – choosing to survey senior HR stakeholders in the Thames Valley to better understand what changes have taken place and why.

So, what has been driving change in the HR field?
77 per cent of people felt that a shift in employee expectations had driven the most change within HR. The second biggest impact that HR professionals pointed to, was the changing economy (59 per cent). As the cost-of-living rises, employers face the dilemma of how much of their employees’ burdens should be shouldered by the business.

However, the economy could also now play a different role which will affect HR policy. As energy costs spiral, many businesses are starting to struggle financially, leading to increased redundancies.

Employee relations and grievances
The findings revealed that Employee Relations (ER) issues are taking up more time than ever for HR professionals – with 47 per cent claiming that they are dealing with more ER issues now than they were prior to the pandemic. Respondents gave a variety of reasons for this, including struggles with remote management, as well as mental health and performance problems. However, the largest challenge given was an increase in grievances.

So, what exactly is causing these grievances?

The top reasons given were:

  • Wellbeing – Mental health: 39%
  • Management since WFH/hybrid: 36%
  • D&I – Discrimination: 19%
  • Absence: 6%

Wellbeing and mental health support
Research carried out during the pandemic found that mental health issues were rising rapidly. Mental health is a protected characteristic, so if businesses are not treating people suffering from poor mental health adequately, then they may be leaving themselves open to grievances.

Unfortunately, even though there are now a fair number of accessible courses, many line managers have not received adequate training and may not understand the ‘reasonable adjustments’ they should be making for people whose mental health has declined.

Some might manage the performance of employees without identifying and investigating problems properly, or not give the flexibility that should be afforded to people with health issues. This is certainly adding to the workload of HR professionals who then must deal with grievances off the back of this.

Hybrid working policy challenges
The second highest cause of increased grievances is home working / hybrid working policies or lack thereof. Three major junctures have emerged:

  • Many employees claim they have been treated unfairly in being made to return to an office having proved they are able to work effectively at home.
  • Some claim that they have not been afforded the same level of flexibility as other colleagues and therefore feel that they have fewer rights.
  • And lastly, grievances arose from employees being put onto performance management because their managers believe they are “slacking” at home.

Organisations need to ensure that they have clear policies in place and are treating employees equally or they could be leaving themselves open to major problems.

Diversity and Inclusion: a mixed bag
Surprisingly, 46 per cent of HR departments have not introduced D&I focused policies reflecting a diverse workforce (outside of policies for invisible disabilities) over the past three years. This could be because work had been done pre-pandemic but, considering nearly 20 per cent of grievances have been D&I related, this is clearly an area deserving of attention.

Where there has been a policy change, however, is in the consideration of employees with invisible disabilities. Roughly a quarter of people who are registered disabled do not use a wheelchair or have a disability classed as unobvious to the eye. Some examples being:

  • Debilitating pain
  • Hearing and/or vision impairments
  • Cognitive dysfunctions
  • Autism
  • Diabetes

All are ‘protected characteristics’ and, if required, reasonable adjustments should be made for people suffering with these impairments. Over the past few years this has been a big focus and at least two thirds of HR departments have reviewed their policies to include invisible disabilities.

Employee engagement in a hybrid world
Hybrid working has caused higher hurdles when it comes to employee engagement – forcing businesses to think of innovative ways to engage and communicate with their employees whilst spending less face-to-face time with them. Human Resources plays a pivotal role in ensuring that employee engagement remains high – 56 per cent of those surveyed were involved in or implemented initiatives to focus on ensuring a positive company culture, whilst having a more remote work force.

We have seen this reflected in the rise of the job title of ‘people and culture’. Work clearly needs to continue to ensure that culture is not negatively impacted due to changing working practices, and much of that work will fall to HR departments.

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