Employees are being overworked to the point where they need counselling or take stress leave because bosses are ramping up performance targets to save hiring new staff, union officials say.
The latest Employment Trends report says almost a third of all employers (30.8 per cent) consider enhancing existing staff performance and productivity as their top priorities this year.
Almost two-thirds have no plans to hire new staff in the near future.
FIRST Union general secretary Robert Reid said employees were facing official warnings for failing to meet unrealistic targets set by bosses demanding more work from fewer staff.
"We're finding a complete misunderstanding from employers about what productivity is and often [they] use the word as making a worker's work harder," Mr Reid said.
"Over the last year and few months there has certainly been what we would term a huge increase in work intensity.
"The screws on [performance targets are] tightening so that last year's [target] is not good enough, you have to do more."
Mr Reid, whose union represents 27,000 workers, said the intensifying work expectations were resulting in high levels of stress for many, who were taking sick leave and requiring counselling.
Every month the union receives calls from members who are "absolutely overworked, stressed to the max" and "having to have discipline hearings because their work level is not at the level required for the new targets".
The Public Service Association (PSA) said there was "no doubt" that the loss of about 3000 jobs in the public sector over the past four years had put "immense pressure on workers who are being told to go the extra mile to meet ambitious public service targets with fewer resources".
PSA national secretary Richard Wagstaff said some government agencies had unfilled vacancies as high as 30 per cent.
"That puts huge pressure on existing staff in terms of workload and we know many of our members are putting in hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime to try and keep up and get the job done," he said.
"Simply demanding greater productivity from staff is not the answer.
"Employers need to be exploring how they can improve the quality of their own management and leadership and foster co-operative, supportive workplaces if they want to get the most of their employees."
Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly said he did not agree with the unions' assertions.
"I'm not hearing any more concern about those kinds of issues then I would normally. There's always the odd workplace where that will occur ... but I'm not noticing any increase in that kind of issue right now.
"The reason is employers are very keen to keep good staff because they've invested a lot in them. Increasingly, employers are keen to retain staff even if they can't immediately justify it because they know the real value of making sure that once you've given an employee the skills they need to operate in the workplace they're actually very valuable assets and you want to make sure you keep them, so that suggests you're not going to abuse their trust or their working hours.''
Nor did he agree that employers were ramping up their performance targets.
"Generally speaking, times are tough in the New Zealand economy right now so ramping up targets in the face of a sluggish economy is pointless and most employers will know that.''
The Employment Trends report, by recruitment consultants Hudson, found more than half of employers (61.8 per cent) intend to keep staffing levels steady this quarter. Almost a third (30.4 per cent) intend to employ more people.
Mr Reid said FIRST Union was treating the stress placed on staff facing growing performance targets as a priority this year.
He said the welfare of staff was "very closely linked to health and safety" and union officials continued to negotiate with businesses better ways to manage staff expectations.
"It's going to be one of our key issues in our own strategic plan for this year," he said.
The priorities of businesses this year
- 30.8 per cent of businesses say enhancing staff performance and productivity is their top priority this year
- 17.2 per cent are focused on retaining staff
- 16.9 per cent on staff development
- 11.3 per cent on developing leadership capabilities
- 11 per cent on attracting suitable staff
- 8.2 per cent on restructuring
Source: Hudson Employment Trends report
- Additional reporting Matthew Theunissen