Wriedt provides context of her depression Reply

Former Tasmanian MP, Paul Wriedt, has provided an Australian Sunday newspaper with a long article that provides the context for her suicide attempt, depression and career implosion.  The full article is well worth reading and shows the combination of factors that led to her suicide attempt.

Excessive workload is mentioned several times and, although it is only one of the confluence of factors, the workloads and working hours of politicians remain untreated elements of the health and wellbeing of important social p0licy decision-makers.

If, as many safety advocates profess, safety is led from the top, politicians are doing the safety profession a disservice by not structuring their work environments and schedules to ensure a healthy workplace.

One point is not mentioned in the article.  Paula Wriedt is a spokesperson for beyondblue, the most prominent depression-related organisation in Australian.  In fact Ms Wriedt is one of the organisation’s recent “ambassadors”.

Beyondblue has advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that the Sunday Herald-Sun article was Ms Wriedt’s own work and that beyondblue was not aware of the article before publication.

The beyondblue spokesperson said that the organisation is expanding its pool of ambassadors which should be of particular interest to those working in the workplace health sector.  Ambassadors operate on a volunteer basis and may be eligible for the reimbursement of costs in specific circumstances.

[Hm, voluntary ambassadors lobbying on behalf of a health issue on a voluntary basis.  Perhaps the safety profession could offer a similar “outreach program”]

Ms Wriedt was not obliged to mention beyondblue in the article and it is clear that she sees public discussion on depression issues to be one of her own career goals, but it would have been appropriate to mention her relationship, particularly as she is a beyondblue ambassador.

Kevin Jones

Meditation is a proven stress reduction method for workplaces 3

Meditation is not on the regular agenda at SafetyAtWorkBlog.  If there was time to meditate, the time would probably be spent losing weight in the gym but there is fascinating research that provides some evidence of meditation’s benefit  in reducing work-related stress.

At the Safety Conference in Sydney at the end of  October 2009, Dr Ramesh Manocha of Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women will release research that

“found that after eight weeks of mental silence meditation training called sahaja yoga, occupational stress scores improved [decreased?] 26 per cent.  A non-mental silence relaxation program reaped a 13 per cent gain, while a waiting list control group lifted just 1 per cent.”

The language sounds slightly “new-age” but what makes the difference in this circumstance is that the initial research was undertaken with three groups mentioned above and, importantly, with a control group.

Below is a TV interview with Dr Manocha on the first stage of research.

When looking at workplace stress, people reduce stressors but Dr Manocha says this often requires impossible organisation restructuring due to internal political pressures.  These techniques can be applied on a personal level that employees can take with them through their various life-stages.

Dr Manocha then applied the meditation training in real corporate situations.  According to a media release provided in the lead-up to the conference:

“In a later field trial of mental silence meditation by 520 doctors and lawyers, more than half of the participants whose psychological state (K10) scores indicated they were “at risk” were reclassified as “low risk” after two weeks of meditation.”

It’s the application of this meditation in the workplace context that gained the attention of  SafetyAtWorkBlog and what will be presented at the conference.  The gentle skepticism evident in the TV interview above is understandable but in a time when safety professionals demand evidence, we must look seriously at evidence when it is presented.

More information on The Safety Conference is available HERE.

Kevin Jones

Restorative Justice and workplace fatalities – Part 1 5

The city in which SafetyAtWorkBlog is edited, Melbourne, is struggling to manage a spate of street violence – some racially-based, a lot influenced by alcohol and drugs.  The Age newspaper carried a feature article on 25 August 2009 discussing the concept of “restorative justice”, a concept that is barely known outside of some legal or civil liberties areas, in relation to handling offenders and victims of street violence.

Pages from RJ_and_Work-Related_Death_Consultation_ReportOnly last week, there was an important launch of a research report into the application of restorative justice for those affected by workplace fatalities.  It is a fascinating new area of application for restorative justice in Australia and one that seems a more natural fit than for the more common acts of violence.

The research project builds on a lot of the work already undertaken into workplace fatalities by the Creative Ministries Network. Their research, mentioned in the project report, has shown

“…that families and company directors, managers and workers grieving a traumatic death suffer more prolonged and complicated grief due to delays in legal proceedings, public disclosure of personal information, lack of information, and increased stress from involvement in the prosecution process and coronial and other litigated processes.”

Over the next few days SafetyAtWorkBlog will run a series of articles on the concept and its application as well as being able to make available copies of the research reports and transcripts of interviews with research participants.

As SafetyAtWorkBlog has no legal expertise restorative justice needed some investigation.  Below are some useful definitions and descriptions:

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that relies on reconciliation rather than punishment. The theory relies on the idea that a well-functioning society operates with a balance of rights and responsibilities. When an incident occurs which upsets that balance, methods must be found to restore the balance, so that members of the community, the victim, and offender, can come to terms with the incident and carry on with their lives.”

Restorative justice brings victims, offenders and communities together to decide on a response to a particular crime. It’s about putting victims’ needs at the centre of the criminal justice system and finding positive solutions to crime by encouraging offenders to face up to their actions.”

“The term “restorative justice” is often used to describe many different practices that occur at various stages of the criminal justice system including:

  • Diversion from court prosecution (i.e. to a separate process for determining justice);
  • Actions taken in parallel with court decisions (e.g. referral to health, education and employment assessment, etc.); and
  • Meetings between victims and offenders at any stage of the criminal process (e.g. arrest, pres-sentence and prison release.”

[Of course, one can also read the Wikipedia entry)

The intention of restorative justice has more often been to reduce the likelihood of a re-offence.  The application of restorative justice for workplace fatalities seems to be slightly different.  In America, it would be difficult to avoid using the word “closure” (a phrase SafetyAtWorkBlog refuses to use as there is never a close to grief, only a way of living with it) as one of the aims of the workplace fatality application.

There are many effects of a workplace fatality on executives and companies.  It is hard to imagine a company that, after one fatality, would not do all it could to avoid another.  Restorative justice has the potential to heal the surviving victims – family and company.  It can also reduce the animosity that often results from the traditional adversarial justice system, particularly for those participants who may not have been exposed to such processes before.

Kevin Jones

OHS and workload – follow-up 2

SafetyAtWorkBlog has had a tremendous response to the article concerning Working Hours and Political Scandal.  Below are some of the issues raised in some of the correspondence I have received from readers and OHS colleagues.

The Trade Union Congress Risk e-bulletin has a similar public service/mental health case which has been resolved through the Courts.   The site includes links through to other media statements and reports.

Australia’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has launched its work/life balance awards for 2009.  The information available on the awards is strongly slanted to a work/family balance which is very different from work/life and excludes employees making decisions for the benefit of their own mental health – a proper work/life balance which is the philosophical basis underpinning OHS legislation.  SafetyAtWorkBlog is investigating these awards with DEEWR.

SafeWork in South Australia is working on a code of practice on working hours and has been providing OHS advice on this matter since 2000.

The WA government has had a draft code on working hours for some time.

A legal reader has pointed out that  “the 38 hour week issue is not set in stone …[and]  is not a maximum for non-award employees.”  So expect more industrial relations discussion on that issue over the next two years.

One reader generalised from the Grech case about decision-making at senior levels, a concern echoed by many others.

“The Grech case illustrates the gradual disintegration of effectiveness, and the employee’s own inability to recognise that it is not a personal failing of efficiency, rather an unrecognised systemic risk.

When the employee is at senior level, there is more likelihood there will be poor attention to the warning signs. Any ‘underperformance’ would be seen as a personal failing. For those of us in the safety business, it is obvious that the system itself is in need of urgent risk management.”

There were congratulations from many readers for raising a significant and hidden OHS issue.

“Many people in industry work more than 70 hour a week. This affects their health and personal relationships.”

“Overwork and under-resourcing lead to poor decision making, adverse business outcomes, and in the long term psychological and physical ill health. Both the government and corporate sectors are paying little attention to this issue.”

The workplace hazards resulting from fatigue are being addressed in several industries such as transport, mining and forestry, where attentiveness is hugely important because of the catastrophic consequences of poor judgement.

One of the issues from the Grech case is that the quality of judgement in non-critical, or administrative, occupations can be severely affected by fatigue, mental health and other psychosocial issues.  These may not affect the health and well-being of others but can have a significant effect on the individual.  OHS does not only deal with systemic or workplace cultural elements but is equally relevant to the individual worker.

Kevin Jones

[Thanks to all those who have written to me and continue to do so. KJ]

Handling trauma Reply

The Rural Health Education Foundation (RHEF) produced a DVD recently as part of its professional development program on managing trauma.  It is an introduction for rural medical practitioners on how to identify trauma and how to advise on management.  The video was produced in conjunction with the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and is unavailable at the moment due to a lack of funding.  However, the video, and others, are available online through a free registration at the RHEF website.

Trauma DVD 002Health and safety practitioners rarely prepare themselves adequately for handling a traumatized worker whether it is from a work experience or an issue outside the workplace.  OHS practitioners often have a linear perspective where an incident occurs, the personal damage is handled or referred on and the avoidance of recurrence is prevented.

The cycle of incident, rehabilitation and reintegration to the workplace is not widely understood in the OHS field.  The “Recovery From Trauma: What Works” video illustrates the personal and psychological cost of an incident.  Through a case study it also shows the early signs of trauma, when a worker may “not be himself” – the clues to a possible bigger problem.  One case study, John, specifically includes the impact of his situation on his work performance.

In the early stages of trauma, around a week after an incident, the video advises that people avoid

  • Alcohol and drugs
  • Keeping overly busy
  • Involvement in stressful situations
  • Withdrawing
  • Stopping yourself doing things you enjoy
  • Taking risks

If the worker is out of sorts for longer than a week, professional assistance should be sought.

The video was broadcast in February 2009 so the information is current.

The program continues with issues of post-traumatic stress disorder with additional case studies including a policeman talking about his counseling and the therapy he undertook after a traumatic event.

RHEF does not try to do everything by itself and draws upon subject matter experts on trauma and recovery.  The video is a very professional production and RHEF should be supported in its initiatives.  Readers are encouraged to watch the videos online and, if you can, consider supporting RHEF financially so that these important resources can be made available to medical professionals throughout Australia.

Kevin Jones

Working Hours and Political Scandal 6

Over the last month or so, Australian politics has been scandalised by a senior Treasury official admitting to faking an email that implied political favouritism by the Australian Treasurer, Wayne Swan, and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Godwin Grech is the public servant who has admitted faking the email and there are many reasons he has put forward, and journalists have endlessly speculated on, for his actions.  SafetyAtWorkBlog will discuss a minor element of the “Ozcar affair” that has been almost entirely overlooked – OHS.

Since the scandal broke in a Senate inquiry, Godwin Grech kept a fairly low profile and was last reported to be receiving treatment in a Canberra psychiatric facility.  It has been reported that Grech has a history of physical health problems and it has been reported, in an investigation into the affair by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), that administering the scheme was taxing on Grech.  The report says

“The under‐resourcing of the implementation phase of the policy placed at risk the anticipated policy outcomes. It also placed a considerable workload on Mr Godwin Grech, the Treasury official primarily responsible for the development and implementation of the policy measure, particularly in light of his medical condition.”

It needs to be noted that additional resources were offered to Grech to assist in administering the scheme. But Treasury was also criticised in the report.

“There were no indications that these matters, or Mr Grech’s medical condition, were given due weight in the implementation planning and delivery.”

Grech admitted to the ANAO that he had not informed his employer, the Department of Treasury, of his ongoing struggle with depression.

“What senior Treasury management did not know – as I have only very recently discovered – was that I have also been suffering from chronic clinical depression for some years, dating back to at least 2003. This had not been treated.”

Page 100 of the ANAO report has Grech quoting the OHS Act’s employer obligation to “take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety at work of [its] employees’”, and then lists his working hours required by the scheme.

“My work on the Oz Car program required me to work between 75‐85 hours per week including on weekends from late October 2008 until the onset of my bowel obstruction in early February 2009. My hours varied from 60‐70 hours per week from late February to June 2009.”

The amount of hours expected is phenomenal and there is little surprise that health problems or poor judgement occurred on this hazard alone.

However, what Grech fails to quote in the information to the ANAO is another section of the OHS Act 1991 – Section 21

“Duties of employees in relation to occupational health and safety

(1) An employee must, at all times while at work, take all reasonably practicable steps:

(a) to ensure that the employee does not take any action, or make any omission, that creates a risk, or increases an existing risk, to the health or safety of the employee, or of other persons (whether employees or not) at or near the place at which the employee is at work; ……”

Employees have a legislative obligation to not put themselves at risk. It would be interesting to know why Grech took on more than was healthy for him.

This dichotomy of choice is a crucial but difficult one for all employees in all industries.  When is it the right time to say no more or to ask for help or to say something is unsafe or unhealthy?

A further complexity to employment relations comes when industrial relations legislation specifies a maximum amount of working hours.  The Australian Government’s very recent Fair Work Act 2009 specifies maximum weekly hours of 38.  So what does this say about the employer’s OHS obligations to  civil servants, such as Godwin Grech?

The Fair Work Act says (Division 3, Section 62 (1))

“An employer must not request or require an employee to work more than the following number of hours in a week unless the additional hours are reasonable:

(a) for a full time employee—38 hours; or
(b) for an employee who is not a full time employee—the lesser of:

(i) 38 hours; and
(ii) the employee’s ordinary hours of work in a week.

Employee may refuse to work unreasonable additional hours.”

In May 2008, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said the following about public service workloads:

“I understand that there has been some criticism around the edges that some public servants are finding the hours a bit much ….. Well, I suppose I’ve simply got news for the public service — there’ll be more.  This Government was elected with a clear-cut mandate.  We intend to proceed with that.  The work ethic of this Government will not decrease.  It will increase.”

Godwin Grech could be considered one example of the Rudd Government work ethic.

In this political scandal OHS is an oblique and fringe issue but its existence cannot be ignored and it raises legitimate questions about how a Labor Government, the traditional friend of the worker, manages the safety of its employees.

Kevin Jones

Forest not required – indoor air quality and plants Reply

Ever since modern offices have relied on air conditioning for ventilation, indoor air quality has been a contentious occupational issue from other people’s smells to thermal comfort to photocopier toner dust.

The prominence of air quality in offices as an OHS issue can be illustrated by a paragraph from the 1997  edition of Officewise, when cigarette smoke remained a real hazard.  No mention was made of plants.

Air in offices may be contaminated by several different
sources, including odours and micro-biological and
chemical contaminants. In an office environment, the
quality of the air is often controlled through an air
conditioning system. A building’s air conditioning
system may be considered as its lungs. The function
of such a system is to draw in outside air, filter, heat,
cool or humidify it and circulate it around the building.
The system expels a portion of the air to the outside
environment and replaces this expelled portion with
fresh or outside air.

“Air in offices may be contaminated by several different sources, including odours and micro-biological and chemical contaminants. In an office environment, the quality of the air is often controlled through an air conditioning system. A building’s air conditioning system may be considered as its lungs. The function of such a system is to draw in outside air, filter, heat, cool or humidify it and circulate it around the building. The system expels a portion of the air to the outside environment and replaces this expelled portion with fresh or outside air.”

The focus was (pre-green buildings) on mechanical ventilation but even in the 2006 edition there was no mention of the any benefits from indoor plants.

A haughty OHS response to these issues would be to just open a window and eliminate the hazards.  But the capacity to open office windows has not been available for several decades whether it is for the reasons of comfort or to eliminate the risk of people jumping through windows or for energy efficiency or security, is debatable.

Throughout the “closed environment decades” there have been plant advocates.  There have long been claims that plants are calming and increase productivity although some of the sick plants in some offices are evidence only of coffee dregs and in the 1980’s, cigarette butts.  Robin Mellon of the Green Building Council Australia puts the value of plants in the workplace context.

Finally there seems to be some evidence about the air filtration capacity of plants indoors.  According to a recent media statement from the University of Technology Sydney (via a company who supplies plants to offices), research has been undertaken that shows “that any plants can improve indoor air quality and the size of the pot or plant does not matter above 200mm. Adjunct Professor Margaret Burchett says

“We have found that a plant in a 200mm pot is as effective as one in a 250mm or 300mm in removing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and it seems that any plant will perform as well as others… This is important news – it means that any indoor room or office which is air-conditioned or closed for much of the time, can really benefit from having just one 200mm pot plant.”

A 1998 interview with Professor Burchett on the benefits of plants is also available online.

The new information on this issue is the filtering capacity of an individual plant in a room.  This is useful as workplaces will not need forests to assist in controlling the hazards presented by mechanical ventilation in modern buildings.  There are many reason, however, for having plants in workplaces.  Not only are they pleasant to see, they can also indicate a company’s green aims and credentials, particularly if in a more recent office block.

Let’s hope that the movement towards “safe design” for OHS purposes includes plants.

Kevin Jones

Depression and workplace stress rehabilitation 1

In January 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on the end of a political saga involving parliamentarian Paula Wriedt.  Ms Wriedt has since become a spokesperson for the treatment of depression and on 10 August she spoke with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about more resources for the treatment of mental health issues in the young.

Kevin Jones

Firefighter trauma 5

A major element of risk management  is business continuity.  This requires considerable planning, disaster recovery resources, and a long-term focus.

In early 2009 parts of Victoria, some not far from the offices of SafetyAtWorkBlog, were incinerated and across the State over 170 people died. In a conservative western culture like Australia, the bush-fires were the biggest natural disaster in living memory.

The is a Royal Commission into the Victorian Bushfires that is illustrating many of the disaster planning and community continuity needs in risk management.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “7.30 Report” provided a report on 5 August 2009 which originates from the views of the community and the volunteer firefighters.  One of the issues relevant to safety professionals and risk managers is the psychological impact on volunteer workers.  Many in the report talk of trauma.  Many in the disaster areas have not returned and their are many who remain psychologically harmed.

When a workforce is so closely integrated with a community, rehabilitation is a daunting task and changes a community forever.

Overseas readers may have experienced their own natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, floods and wildfires.  Many of these stories are reported around the world.  In the recovery phase of any disaster, businesses need to rebuild but are often rebuilding with damaged people.  It would be heartening to see the OHS regulators and OHS professions becoming more involved over the long recovery period.

Kevin Jones

Australia’s “Find a Psychologist” directory Reply

Several OHS regulators in Australia, OHS professional associations and trade union have directories for OHS advisers.  Most of them are in the traditional OHS areas of guarding, engineering, chemical safety…..  Psychosocial issues such as work stress or workplace bullying haven’t featured as much.

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has a very good searchable directory for its members.  The search results provide a brief table of those psychologists for the subject area in your region with a good amount of information on individual listings on the click-through.

A great feature is to locate someone within a radius of one’s town or suburb.  The Society has thought about the geography  if Australia by including a 200 kilometre radius option.

On a brief search for psychologists who specialise in work stress or workplace bullying, the large Australian capital cities had plenty of listings.  Darwin came up empty as did Cairns, Alice Springs and Broom but these are remote locations and there may be psychologists in those areas who could provide assistance on workplace psychosocial issues, just not as specialists.

The “Find a Psychologist” directory is very easy to use and could be used by other member organisations as a template for their own databases.  The APS website should be flagged by Australian OHS professionals who need he services of psychologists for workplace psychosocial assistance.

Kevin Jones