In developing harm reduction and prevention strategies, the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession likes to look at worst case scenarios on the understanding that dealing with an extreme event introduces mechanisms that deal with lesser events. Partly this is a legacy of Bird’s Pyramid. During this current month of attention on workplace mental health, the issue of work-related suicide is unavoidable as a worst case scenario for depression and mental ill-health. There are several new pieces of data on work-related suicides that OHS professionals need to consider as part of their own professional development and to increase their organisational and operational relevance.
Mates In Construction
In October 2014, the Mates In Construction (MIC) program released a report on “The economic cost of suicide and suicide behaviour in the NSW construction industry and the impact of MATES in Construction suicide“. Below is a summary of some of its findings, in Australian Dollars:
“The average age of each suicide fatality among construction industry workers was 36.8 years and 37.7 years in QLD [Queensland] and NSW [New South Wales], respectively.”
“The average cost of a self-harm attempt resulting in a short-term absence from work is estimated at $925 in 2010 dollars.”
“Each self-harm attempt resulting in full incapacity is estimated at $2.78 million; and, each suicide attempt resulting in a fatality is estimated at $2.14 million”
“The key cost driver for full incapacity and a fatality is lost income, equivalent to 27.3 years productive years”
“Across all categories, the burden of cost associated with self-harm and suicide is borne largely by the government: 97% or $4.80 million of the total combined cost of $4.92 million.” (all in page 3)
The 2014 Annual Report of the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) states a new initiative on workplace mental health:
“…a new direction for the VWA’s WorkHealth program has led to the Victorian Mental Wellbeing Collaboration. The VWA has invested in a tripartite collaboration with peak health promotion agencies VicHealth and SuperFriend to develop a range of evidence based tools and resources that will be tested and refined through industry leaders and made broadly available to Victorian workplaces.” (page 25, links added)
Two significant points in this statement are the development of a range of “evidence-based tools and resources” and the pledge to consult. However what is meant by a tripartite consultation in this context is unclear as traditionally OHS consultation has included employer associations, trade unions and government regulators. If health promotion agencies are included in this latest “tripartite collaboration”. Will the employer groups or trade unions be dropped? Consultation on any new OHS/wellbeing initiative should not be constrained in a tripartite combination.
One of the traps in this initiative is the potential confusion by terminologies. “Mental health” is a well-understood term that is readily applied to the workplace by organisations such as the Western Australian Mental Health Commission who quotes the World Health Organisation
“…. good mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder. It is a state of wellbeing whereby an individual can realise their own potential, manage everyday stresses, work productively and contribute to their community.” (page 6)
There have been many claims of a workplace bullying epidemic in Australia but there has always been a lack of evidence. Research has been targeted into specific industry sectors or regions but broad ranging studies have been few. This lack of evidence was a major frustration for the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying that concluded in late 2012. However useful evidence is beginning to appear.
A recent edition of the Journal of Health Safety and Environment included a report (subscribers only) entitled “The prevalence and nature of bullying: A national study of Australian workers”. The authors, Dr Sarven McLinton, Maureen Dollard, Michelle Tuckey and Tessa Bailey, wrote that the study
“… shows that nearly 7% of Australian workers reported bullying and harassment in the past six months.” (page 283)
I was interviewed this evening on the cost of mental stress by Your Rights at Night on Radio Adelaide. The podcast is now available HERE.
I have listened back to this interview this morning and have some advice for other OHS professionals who may find themselves in a similar situation.
Insist on seeing the interview questions prior to the interview. I asked for this but the questions weren’t available. Colleagues have advised me to refuse the interview if this occurs again as there is a risk of being trapped in a discussion that is very different from what was expected.
If the questions aren’t available, ask for the core theme of the interview so that topic parameters are established earl in the process. More…
Lucinda Smith of Esteem People Management has made some excellent points about stress and mental health in her article – “The People Risk of Work-Related Stress“. On determining the cost of mental stress she acknowledges authoritative government estimates but, significantly, states of the data:
“Although not fully exploring the issue of workplace stress because it only applies to accepted claims,…”
This is the core of much of the frustration in the OHS profession that injury and illness is always underestimated because data is based on workers’ compensation statistics.
Where Smith progresses the argument, though, is by comparing several important pieces of data. Quoted in a Safe Work Australia report, Medibank Private estimated in 2008 that the direct cost of work-related stress was
“…$14.81 billion to the Australian economy, and $10.11 billion to Australian employers because of stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism.” (page 3 of the Safe Work Australia report)
One of the most contentious issues in safety management is the treatment of workers compensation claimants. On 18 August 2014, a small qualitative research report into this area was launched in Melbourne. The report, “Filling the Dark Spot: fifteen injured workers shine a light on the workers compensation system to improve it for others”* identified four themes in the workers’ stories:
- a sense of injustice
- a lack of control and agency
- loss of trust, and
- loss of identity.
These themes, or at least some of them, are increasingly appearing on the occupational health and safety (OHS) literature. To establish a successful sustainable workplace culture, one needs to establish and maintain trust. Workers also seem to need some degree of control, or at least influence, over their working conditions and environment. Also workers, and managers, need to receive a fair hearing, what most would describe as “natural justice”. More…
Any of the books written or edited by Vicente Navarro are worth serious consideration. The latest book, edited with Carles Muntaner has the daunting title of The Financial and Economic Crises and Their Impact On Health and Social Well-Being but it is the content that is important. The editors’ social class analysis may be unfashionable in some areas, or even anachronistic, but the perspective remains valid, as they write:
“…any explanation of the current crisis requires incorporating a social class perspective so as to understand the modus operandi of the economic-financial-political system.” (page 4)
The book though is about the effects of the crisis on health and well-being and there is much to learn. More…
In July 22 2014 Dr. Dave Sharar, Managing Director of Chestnut Global Health, stated:
“Business leaders here and abroad are starting to understand the need for systematic, scientifically proven approaches in alleviating the behaviors and conditions that compromise employee performance. Managing the stress and the counterproductive behaviors that often result, is critical — but the key to success when engaging different populations in different parts of the world is to place these programs in a ‘culturally aware’ context, which lowers barriers and improves both engagement and outcomes.”
Most of the quote is inarguable and links the management of stress to the management of productivity. However what was intriguing was the later part of the quote about locating stress management programs in a culturally aware context in different parts of the world. SafetyAtWorkBlog established a quick dialogue with Dr Sharar about the quote. Below is the result.
A major element of Corporate Social Responsibility has been to try to apply a safety management system across many workplaces that is consistent with a uniform corporate program and values. How can one address the culturally attuned context while still addressing the core corporate safety values? More…
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are excellent resources for minimising harm from workplace issues, particularly psychosocial hazards. However this usually occurs after an event or an incident. This reality was emphasised recently by a media release from AccessEAP that revealed “the top five causes of workplace stress” (not available online but an article based closely on the release is available HERE) . The top 5 seems reasonable but the advice in the media release doesn’t seem to address the causes of the top 2 – Job Insecurity and Work Overload. These are difficult hazards to address particularly as the causes may originate outside the workplace but the media release indicates that to be effective safety managers it is necessary to look beyond the company’s fenceline and accept that the prevention of harm is now just as much social and political as it is occupational.
The top 5 triggers of workplace stress according to AccessEAP are:
- Job insecurity
- Work overload
- Organisational change
- Conflict with managers or colleagues
- Bullying and harassment
Such triggers are not unusual. In 2002 the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (JOEM) reported the following causes of stress at work: More…
On 1 July 2014, the Victorian Government introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime for the sections of the construction industry. According to the government’s media release:
“New requirements for tighter screening of drug and alcohol use at construction workplaces across Victoria will commence from 1 July, helping to ensure a safer and more secure environment for workers.”
This decision has been made on the basis of “widespread reports of workers being intoxicated, and of drug distribution and abuse” but the rest of the media release reveals other reasons for these changes including political pressure on its Labor Party and trade union opponents in the months before a close State election. Premier Denis Napthine has indicated that the move is also about cracking down on “outlaw motorcycle gangs dealing drugs on the sites”.
But are reports of potential criminality on building site enough to introduce a drug and alcohol testing regime? It is worth looking at some of the existing research on drug and alcohol use (or its absence) in Australian and Victorian work sites.