What is workplace “mental wellbeing”? 1

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)

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New workplace bullying evidence 1

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)

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Short radio interview on the cost of workplace mental health 3

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…

If everyone claimed compensation for work-related stress in Australia, the estimated annual cost would be $83 billion Reply

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)

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“Put the human being first” 13

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…

How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong? 3

How can an OHS regulator get the management of its own staff so wrong?

In June 2014, a NSW Parliamentary inquiry released its final report into Allegations of bullying in WorkCover NSW, that State’s occupational health and safety (OHS) regulator. The report found that

“…Workcover has a significant organisational problem with bullying.  This problem is a longstanding one and operates at a cultural level.” (page x)

The Committee Chairman Hon Fred Nile MLC, wrote that

“more effective leadership and governance is essential.” (page x)

Longstanding bullying problems?  Problems with leadership and governance?  Many companies and public sector organisations have had similar issues ambulances, police, fire services, research organisations, to name a few, and are working them through. What happened in New South Wales?

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Mind Set – Mental Health in Australian Workplaces Reply

[This article was written by Helen Borger and was first published in the May-June 2014 edition of National Safety - a magazine of the National Safety Council of Australia.  Reproduced with permission. (Links added by SafetyAtWorkBlog editor) ]

rsz_ns__mayjun_2014A quick online search reveals a plethora of advice and information about choosing the right mood-altering paint colours for office walls and selecting the best beanbags for worksite chill-out spaces. Not to mention the availability of on-site massages to ease employee tension and anxiety.

It’s tempting to make these interventions the centrepiece of workplace mental health and wellbeing programs because they are feel-good, visible signs of management action that are relatively easy to implement.

Although these interventions have their place, when jobs, work processes and workers come under pressure, staff are more likely to be driven up the moodaltering walls than calmed down by them; cobwebs, not workers, are more likely to come to rest on the beanbags in the chill-out spaces; and on-site massages are unlikely to singlehandedly resolve employee tension and anxiety.

The cost of work-related stress in Australia is enormous. Employers are spending an estimated $8 billion per annum on sickness absence and presenteeism due to depression; of this, $693 million per annum is incurred due to job strain and bullying, says Safe Work Australia’s report on psychosocial safety climate and worker health in Australia.

“Regardless of cause, the estimated cost of productivity loss for the most psychologically unhealthy 25 per cent of the Australian workforce was $17.84 billion,” the report adds.

No excuses

CommuniCorp Group* managing director and principal psychologist David Burroughs says while many organisations understand the complexities of workplace mental health, and are willing to ask the hard questions and genuinely fix problems in their organisations, he still sees many other organisations that rely on employee assistance programs (EAPs) or tertiary interventions, and are looking for quick fixes to very complex problems.

“The reality is there are very few quick-fix solutions when it comes to psychological health in the workplace. You can’t just run [a product] off the shelf and expect it’s going to address the various needs across all the different job roles, job levels and workplaces that are out there,” says Burroughs.

Despite the complexities, he rejects the concern that workplace mental health problems are hard to fix. “We’re asking [employers] to acknowledge what’s actually going on in their workplace. We’re not uncovering problems that aren’t there. We’re not taking a lid off a can of worms,” he says. “The excuse that it’s too hard, or it’s hard to actually spot, or it’s too problematic, is no longer valid … an employer has a responsibility and an obligation to the business and to [their workforce].”

Beyond the quick fix

To avoid tokenistic solutions, Kevin Jones, a work health and safety (WHS) consultant and the publisher of www.safetyatworkblog.com, says it’s necessary to remind workplace leaders that the aim of occupational health and safety (OHS) and its laws is to remove harm at the source. He says often things that bring symptomatic relief, such as massages at desks, have no impact on the cause. More…

The first Annual Statement on workplace bullying data gets a C+ Reply

Recently Safe Work Australia released  its first annual statement on “Psychosocial health and safety and bullying in Australian workplaces“.  This is a terrific initiative but it has a significant flaw – it combines statistical data for harassment and bullying even though they are different hazards, have different remedies, are usually handled by different professions in many organisations, and have different external appeal options.

The Annual Statement itself quotes its origin:

 “The Committee recommends that Safe Work Australia issues an annual national statement which updates any emerging trends of its collated data from each of the state and territory regulators, and the Commonwealth, with respect to psychosocial health and safety generally and workplace bullying specifically“. (emphasis added)

Nowhere in the Annual Statement is there any data specifically addressing workplace bullying.  Bullying is always linked with harassment, contrary to the brief from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment’s workplace bullying report, as I read it.

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Poor editing could increase confusion on workplace bullying Reply

One of the occupational health and safety (OHS) issues that does not “travel” well across international borders is workplace bullying.  Each country usually has its own laws (if at all).  Each operates in a different culture and each has a different definition of what constitutes workplace bullying.  Those who communicate and publish information on this hazard need to be sure that an article is relevant to its readership or at least clearly indicate the article’s overseas origin.

On 28 May 2014 the Australian Financial Review (AFR) published a US article on workplace bullying that was first published in  the Washington Post in March 2014 that purports to discuss workplace bullying but, to the Australian readership, the article describes bad management  practices and poor work behaviour, NOT workplace bullying. More…

Beyondblue’s latest research report is too narrow 4

Beyondblue has just released a report into the cost of mental health in the workplace prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and called “Creating a mentally healthy workplace – Return on investment analysis“. The report is interesting but of limited use for those looking for ways to make their own workplaces safer and healthier with minimal cost.  The Beyondblue  media release claims

“… that Australian businesses will receive an average return of $2.30 for every $1 they invest in effective workplace mental health strategies.

The research, which looked at the impact of employees’ mental health conditions on productivity, participation and compensation claims, also found these conditions cost Australian employers at least $10.9 billion a year.”

The first claim looks attractive but achieving such a return is unlikely unless the company includes the following:

  • “commitment from organisational leaders,
  • employee participation,
  • development and implementation of policies,
  • provision of the necessary resources, and
  • a sustainable approach.” (page iv)

The best chance for the return on investment (ROI) will likely occur in a company that has an enlightened management, “necessary resources” and a leadership that is already likely to have mental health and a safe organisational culture on its agenda.  This is a rare combination which limits the application of the PwC report findings. More…