For two decades now the occupational stressors/stress regulatory debate in Australia has limped along with the same arguments, same objections, same type of discussions. The same largely impractical documents mentioning psychological effects, physical effects, ‘good stress’ and what is or isn’t a disease and, of course, finger-wagging advice about risk assessments.
Exactly how has all this benefited workers? So far as I can see across many industries very little indeed. I can actually identify individual workplaces where 20 year old stressors have still not been eliminated nor controlled, others are worse even though managers have come and gone.
There was a period in this debate when the bio-medical models were prominent (The Fluid Phase) with a focus on the ‘stress hormones’ – adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and dopamine. Melatonin and serotonin were also discussed, but not nearly as much. Result? No benefit to workers. There was a period of debate about words (The Semantic Phase): what exactly did ‘stress’ mean? What about ‘strain’? Or ‘eustress’ (euphoric stress)? What about ‘distress’? Or the more insidious ‘good’ or ‘positive stress’ and ‘hardiness’, remember them? Result? No benefit to workers at the job. Then there was forensic interest in ‘which exactly contributes more to occupational stress: life generally, genetics, personality or things at work’ (The Multiplex Phase)?
Changes in organisation, in numbers of workers, in rosters, in workloads (vis a vis process and machinery changes) have resulted in improvements, but these have been rare. The matters of shorter shifts, longer breaks (say, at 3 am), genuine reductions in levels of fatigue and fear of job loss have generally become worse.Pick an industry, pick a workplace: A mine? A foundry? A white goods factory? A textile factory? A road construction job? A supermarket? A school with its special pressures? A busy hotel with a restaurant? An office? A hospital? A psychiatric ward? An aged care facility? A fishing boat? Food processing
Now consider some presumably unique workloads
- A pilot landing a plane with 500 passengers in bad weather;
- A marine pilot manoeuvring and berthing a giant chemical tanker in port at 11 am 2 kms from the CBD;
- The surgeon at a delicate moment of risk to life;
- A school teacher maintaining control of a large and difficult class, day after day, week after week;
- An offshore platform worker on 12-14 hour night shifts, on a cycle of 14 days at a time away from home;
- A miner 1200 meters underground working in 400C in a seismically-prone mine that has already killed workers;
- A bus driver under constant time table pressure in peak traffic;
- A nurse watching suffering patients, having to manage her/his own prolonged emotion work;
- The psychiatric nurse trying to handle unpredictable and violent psychotic patients;
- A soldier being shot at in a battle field;
- Ambulance medics at yet another road incident with serious injuries;
- A fire fighter at a 4.30 am house fire;
- A 54 year old worker in constant (management-orchestrated) fear of job loss
Similarities? There’ll be workload, various fluctuating demands, at times conflicting massages to deal with, and many kinds of rosters and associated fatigue. There will be various degrees of control, loss of control or lack of control, and all will be processed and managed through a mix of personal and socio-occupationally influenced perceptions
Certain of these job events will be experienced as stressors by some workers, (they mightn’t call it that), and differently from time to time. Workers will say things like, “This puts pressure on me”, “This really makes me angry”, “ This really frustrates me”, “The work pace is so hard I barely get time to breathe”, “I can’t stand the constant shrieking noise that gets through the ear muffs and into your bones”, “I can’t stand the smell of the fumes that gets into and stays in my skin”, “I am anxious about using this chemical”, “She always treats me as if I don’t have a brain”, “I just can’t get the paperwork done with all these projects he keeps piling on me”, “I can’t just neglect the patient, but I can’t cope with all the staff that’s gone”, “How am I supposed to know what’s going on in the bloody pressure vessels without proper training?”……. and so on.
These are heard at work daily and are expressions of feelings generally referred to as ‘stress’. The triggers and causes are usually some easily named job events.
So what’s the point? There’s nothing complicated or esoteric about most of this. By and large workers suffer under these pressures (pick your favourite descriptor). The range of such suffering has many variations. If it were asbestos in the factory (for example) we would not ask workers to walk around with respirators and masks all day. We’d eliminate or control the asbestos. Why do some believe that with this particular workplace hazard (the stressors) the best primary approach is to ‘train’ the worker to ‘cope better’ with the resulting ‘stress’?
At work the method ought to be a simple one: ask workers to name/describe the job events that they experience as stressors, and then, just like with any other hazard, either eliminate or control them. The majority of these ‘noxious’ job events can be handled like that.
National OHS coordinator
Australian Workers’ Union