Monitoring raises privacy issues

The very nature of some perks means there is often a fine line between employers providing a benefit to employees and using it to monitor staff behaviour, as Sam Barrett investigates

News that Microsoft is developing software that can measure an employee’s productivity, and physical and mental wellbeing raises concerns about the level of monitoring in the workplace.

The system, for which Microsoft filed a patent in January, monitors computer usage as well as using wireless sensors to measure factors such as heart rate, blood pressure, movement and facial expressions. In the workplace, this data can then be interpreted to assess employees’ performance and stress levels, and detect frustration.

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Although this type of software could be used to safeguard employees’ health and wellbeing, experts are warning that too much monitoring can actually be detrimental to productivity, creating a Big Brother-style culture that stifles initiative and dampens morale. Dr Kirstie Ball, senior lecturer in organisational studies at the Open University Business School, explains: “Too much monitoring creates the type of behaviour it’s trying to prevent. If employees know they’re being monitored on certain activities they will find ways to cheat the system.”

Mixed messages
This has been witnessed in pressurised call centres where employees have been set time limits for calls. To ensure they hit these targets staff cut off any callers that may require additional time, perhaps because they have a more complex enquiry or a complaint. So, rather than enhancing customer service, a much poorer level is delivered.

Ball says that monitoring can also give employees a limited message about what is important to the organisation. “If you monitor speed and volume then employees will think that’s what matters and quality can go out of the window. You must get the balance right between monitoring, which is an accepted part of organisational life, and creating an environment that is unpleasant and stressful to work in,” she explains.

But while most employers want to avoid replicating a police state in the workplace, many of the new generation of employee benefits can be regarded, be it rightly or wrongly, as monitoring tools.

Other prime examples of this are satellite navigation systems (sat-nav) in company cars and fuel cards, which produce data that enables employers to keep tabs on exactly where employees have been. Malcolm Bond, head of reward at employment consultants Premier Employer Solutions, says this has its advantages and disadvantages. “Access to this type of data would enable fraudulent use of company vehicles to be monitored and dealt with, but it could also alienate the majority of law-abiding employees.”

Many health and wellbeing benefits can also arouse suspicion among more cynical staff. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs), health screening, absence management recording systems, and online health and wellbeing questionnaires all collect sensitive information about employees. Their use can lead to fears that any information generated may be deployed to discriminate against staff, for example, to select the least healthy employees for a redundancy programme.

Tony Urwin, general manager of psychological services at Bupa Wellness, says: “This can be an issue. We do see some organisations where employees are worried their employer might find out things about their health they didn’t want them to know. However, the nature of what we do is confidential.”

Data protection
Protection is also in place to prevent any individual employee data being disclosed. The Data Protection Act requires all personal information to be held securely and only accessed by those with an individual’s permission to do so. Paul Nash, group product manger for health services at Cigna Healthcare, explains: “The rules are very stringent for medical information, with this information ring-fenced so no unauthorised person can view it.”

This message about confidentiality is also spelt out when staff access these services. For example, Urwin says the first thing employees come across when they use Bupa’s online or phone services is a reminder that any information they give will be treated confidentially.

Using a third-party supplier for these benefits offers some reassurance to staff, says Bond. “This helps to demonstrate that any information or data collected is not available to the employer, although it is also a matter of the employees’ trust of the employer,” he explains.

Suspicious staff may also be comforted by seeing the data employers receive from their EAP provider. Some organisations will actively distribute this to support any action they are taking to tackle problems. Kate Bawden, an associate within Mercer’s health and benefits business, says: “With an EAP, information is given to the organisation but must be provided in such a way that it is impossible to identify an individual.”

To ensure this is the case, EAP providers anonymise the data, by increasing sample sizes so that no incidents can be traced back to an employee. For example, while a large organisation could receive management information broken down by location, department or sex, an EAP provider may only be able to provide it to the company as a whole if it has at least 50 employees.

But even with all this protection, employees can still feel they are under surveillance or that their personal data will be used against them. The way a benefit is positioned and communicated is key to preventing this. Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “These health benefits can help [employers] monitor the business but never individuals. Explain this to employees and point out how these benefits are there to help them.”

Management information from EAPs or online health questionnaires can highlight problems, such as bullying in the workplace or poor dietary habits, which employers can take steps to rectify. Similarly, Lusted says that the results of an online health assessment could be used with a GP to enable the employee to improve their health.

Removing some of the more clinical aspects can help too. For example, Kate Mollinson, account consultant at Icas, recommends promoting EAPs as information rather than counselling services. “People are much happier to call to get advice about the practicalities of something like a car accident or divorce. Then, if they seem anxious, they can be offered psychological support,” she explains.

Building trust
It is also important that any initiatives are supported by the culture of the organisation as this helps to build trust between employees and employers. “It’s no good having a wellbeing questionnaire that advocates a balanced diet if employees only get five minutes to grab a sandwich at lunchtime. Think about what you’re offering as if it’s inappropriate it will backfire,” explains Bawden.

Additionally, where an employee’s health information may suggest a follow-up course of action is necessary, employers should make sure this is readily available. For example, if the triggers on an automated sickness absence management system are set to identify instances of stress-related absence, then provide access to counselling support.

Management support is also necessary. Ann Dougan, marketing director at Cigna Healthcare, explains that top-down sponsorship is essential and recommends targeting line managers as part of the communication programme. “Get your line manager communications right first. They are employees themselves and the message that they give out to staff will affect perception and take-up,” she explains.

Monitoring internet use

Using the internet, whether to send emails or to undertake research, is part of the 21st-century workplace. But as well as delivering business benefits, it can be open to abuse with inappropriate use by employees potentially leading to disciplinary action and negative publicity for the organisation.

Pam Whyteleaf, manager of life management services at Icas, says: “Having access to the internet is commonplace but employees need to be aware that using it brings responsibilities. Whenever they use it they are representing their organisation.” Because of this, it is sensible to have restrictions on what employees can view, barring access to obvious nasties, such as pornography and gambling. Employers may find it is also worth putting triggers in place to alert them to certain types of behaviour such as excessive browsing. “People use the internet for all sorts of things and a change in online behaviour could be an indication of another problem. We’re even beginning to hear about cases of internet addiction. Dealing with this, and other problems, in their early stages can prevent things getting unpleasant,” adds Whyteleaf.

It is also sensible to have an internet policy in place, especially as what constitutes appropriate usage is open to interpretation. Ideally this should be clear, open and drafted with employee involvement, specifying, for instance, when staff use the internet for personal reasons. Helen Duffy, employment solicitor at SA Law, says: “Make it clear what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and outline what will happen if someone breaches the rules. It [isn’t] necessary to monitor everything that employees do online but do use the policy to make sure they understand what is expected of them.”

Case study: Glasgow Housing Association monitors staff wellbeing

When Glasgow Housing Association was established to look after the city’s housing stock five years ago, it took on around 1,700 employees from the former council department, inheriting a culture of poor health.

Marion Lamb, health and safety manager, says: “In the first year we had 12 deaths in service. There were lots of health problems, especially relating to obesity and alcohol.” Sickness absence was also high at around 11% in the 900-strong concierge department. “Across the company, there were plenty of examples of where an employee had a health problem and it had been overlooked by management. We also found plenty of examples of sickness absence that tied in with football matches. We had medical insurance in place but we decided we wanted to tackle this from a prevention rather than cure basis,” explains Lamb.

To help change the culture, the organisation worked with Icas to put together a strategy to address the issues. This included occupational health, an employee assistance programme and medical screening.

Lamb says the manner in which these benefits were rolled out to staff was critical to their success. “We renamed counselling post-traumatic debriefing so it wouldn’t deter the largely male workforce but mainly we made sure we acted when we uncovered anything. Employees were used to reporting an accident or health problem and nothing happening so this helped to win their trust.” An example of this is the stress questionnaire it emailed to staff. The results showed a high incidence of bullying, so to acknowledge this, the chief executive issued a letter explaining how the problem would be tackled.

“People came round very quickly. They were encouraged to see us taking steps to change things,” adds Lamb.