Looking for the causes of workplace harm can change one’s world view

The New York Times reported on 17 May 2010 that psychologists have started considering the causes of workplace stress.  About time!

The report says that

“Employees are unhappy about the design of their jobs, the health of their organizations and the quality of their managers..”

and that unhappy workers have a high risk of heart attacks and depression.

The article is principally an interview with the author of a new personnel management book that identifies that performance reviews are a generator of unhappiness and stress.  This concept has been circulating for some time and goes part way to making workplaces safer.

Job design, mentioned above, can be broadened to include how people are managed.  Personnel management and human resources (HR) are a crucial element of any business but the NYT article indicates a growing realisation that the foundations of this management, how jobs are designed, have generated some of the hazards that HR is now tasked to control.

The article lists a lot of opinions and sensible suggestions but all are summarised by the last line of the article which talks about balance.  Balancing one’s work and home lives is difficult but even more difficult when one has allowed the balance to occur right from the start.

Many baby-boomers are struggling to re-balance a career that they have allowed to be dominated by work.  They chose a profession that may have been notorious for excessive hours and willingly traded their happiness and, sometimes, health and sanity, for money, status or prestige.  Much of the current research and push for work/life balance is for a re-balancing.

But this rebalancing is also an acknowledgement that “we got it wrong”.  Jobs have rarely been designed to allow for humanity.  In the last two decades, the workforce has begun to ask for flexibility and to look for “employers of choice” in some sectors.  Workers are looking for companies that have a humanity – companies that do not expect a sacrifice of one’s own humanity for the good of the corporation, a company that values the humanity of its workforce.

The existence of such companies has begun to appear in the professions and white-collar sectors but is not spreading to the blue-collar industries of the proletariat.  That description, proletariat, is used purposely because some work/life balance initiatives and workplace flexibilities are very unlikely to extend beyond the middle classes without a considerable restructure and, at the moment, the social will for such a change is not there.

The occupational health and safety profession has humanity at the core of its existence.  It also has one of the most direct connections with the workforce.  It introduces control measures, often directly and individually, that clearly indicate its commitment to the welfare of the individual worker.  The easiest part of safety management, the physical removal of risk, is often the most satisfying.  The hardest part of safety management is winding back the management practices to a time when humanity had a genuine currency in business decision-making. (An alternate argument is that there never was such a time)  By winding back it is also possible to make a great leap forward.  There are parallels (and traps) in this with the environmental protection profession.

The NYT article illustrates how we are only part of the way to making workplaces safer because we are only just beginning to look at causes of harm and stress, but not the root causes.  If root causes are to be considered one must also look at the foundations of our society.  And that is a little like looking at the night sky and admiring the stars rather than looking beyond the atmosphere and contemplating the enormity of the universe.

Kevin Jones

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