Boiled frog syndrome: advice from UCU H&S office


Many workers feel it to be true and some recently published research has confirmed that employers really don’t care how constant change affects their staff.  According to expert HR researchers at the Portsmouth University Business School, while many employers have serious concerns about the impact change is having on their organisation very few were worried about the effect on their employees and their welfare. The study, which involved senior human resources practitioners at companies employing more than 100 workers, found senior executives were embarrassed at high levels of employee stress within their organisations but many didn’t care if employees were burning out. Researchers commented that they were alarmed at some of the results. Employees are an organisation’s most valuable asset (even though many UCU members don’t see much evidence of corresponding care being exercised by their employers) and collectively have the power to help the organisation survive and thrive in bad times as well as in good, but managers appeared to think they have a licence to change, but only about a third of changes they’ve made are successful.  Their advice to employers is that they need to stop foisting continual change upon their staff and not to ignore the fact change threatens workers, who then become exhausted, cynical or depressed, which in turn destabilises the organisation.  Employers who overload their employees with continual change tend to see staff react by withdrawing and becoming less engaged, resulting in poorer performance, productivity and retention – they become less resilient, and HE particularly is obsessed with staff resilience. Burnout in the workplace includes emotional exhaustion (loss of energy, feeling worn out and powerless), cynicism (negative attitude, distancing and irritability), and low personal accomplishment (feelings of incompetence, low assertiveness, low self-esteem, ineffectiveness and cognition focused on failure). The research suggests organisations react to change in a variety of ways including the ‘boiled frog syndrome’: When a frog is placed in hot water it will instinctively jump out, but if it placed in cool water that is then slowly heated, the frog will stay in the water until it is boiled alive. In terms of organisational change ‘boiled frog syndrome’ is a state of denial that things are ‘hotting up’ and a complacent attitude to the effect it is having on employees and the organisation.  How do we deal with this?  We can start by refusing to be put into, or remain in the pot; or perhaps by more direct action we can sabotage the gas supply, or stop the employer lighting the gas. We need action to avoid UCU members becoming boiled frogs.

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