The productivity debate in Australia misses the opportunities presented by wellbeing

At the moment Australian business is campaigning on the need to increase productivity rates in Australian workplaces.  It, with the recent support of some State governments and ideological colleagues, is seeking to achieve this by weakening the recent changes to the industrial relations structure encapsulated in the Fair Work Act.  Fair Work Australiatrade unions and industry associations are primarily focussed on the industrial relations elements of this ideological fight over productivity.
Evidence of the potential productivity and economic benefits of improved occupational health and safety has been missing in the debate yet it is this linkage that Dame Carol Black has been talking about recently in Australia.  It seems there is a keen audience for her perspective in Australia as she will be visiting the country four times in 2012.
At a recent OHS conference in Melbourne one speaker said some OHS positions in the United States are being renamed Occupational Health Productivity in recognition of the importance of wellbeing  in the OHS roles.  Renaming “wellbeing” as “productivity” provides a different context to OHS activities and should better gain senior executive attention as it would be easier to see how this activity fits with traditional operational thinking.
There is no doubt that improved health safety and wellbeing will improve productivity and, if managed well, company profitability. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), since 2008 at least has believed that
“…employers can achieve a positive return on investment for dollars spent in wisely managing employee health risks, chronic illnesses and disability.”

There are many official and independent reports that support the ACOEM statement.  One, from Massey University, is quoted by the New Zealand Department of Labour and puts the linkages simply:

“A recent study highlights a number of potential benefits from linking health and safety to productivity:

  • fewer injuries mean that more people keep working
  • designing safety into business is a source of increased innovation, improved quality and improved efficiencies
  • safe workplaces enhance corporate reputations and improve staff recruitment and retention
  • fewer injuries help reduce ACC levies”

Dame Carol Black, author of the 2008 report “Working for a healthier tomorrow“encouraged the UK government to take an “integrated approach to working-age health” supported by:

  • “the inclusion of occupational health and vocational rehabilitation within mainstream healthcare
  • clear professional leadership
  • clear standards of practice and formal accreditation for all providers
  • a sound academic base
  • a revitalised workforce”

She expanded on this by advocating, at the conference, that the needs of the modern workforce could be addressed by having occupational health services:

  • “suit the current profile of employment in different countries, as work is changing
  • form new partnerships and find new ways of working across traditional boundaries
  • make a greater contribution to national economies
  • examine the care pathways for working people, and find new ways to support them, before, during and after illness
  • relate to, and be further attached to, mainstream healthcare (primary and secondary) and relevant specialties.”
The application of occupational health services in workplaces, as Dame Black proposes, recognises the impact of the quality of the working experience on both the health of worker and the health of the business.  This is missing from the current Australian productivity debate and yet it could be a significant “agent of change”.  However this could only occur if the productivity negotiations were genuinely about the welfare of workers and industry, instead of a pissing contest over political power and influence.  Solutions exist to these challenges but only if we are willing to look for them and look for them through new eyes.
reservoir, victoria, australia

One thought on “The productivity debate in Australia misses the opportunities presented by wellbeing”

  1. Well, why not just omit safety and replace that with death! How arrogant can an organisation be? There are better ways to improve productivity. Have they not heard of positive reinforcement or things of the like?

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