Harm prevention needs to look beyond the individual into the corporate and the systemic

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are excellent resources for minimising harm from workplace issues, particularly psychosocial hazards.  However this usually occurs after an event or an incident.  This reality was emphasised recently by a media release from AccessEAP that revealed “the top five causes of workplace stress” (not available online but an article based closely on the release is available HERE) .  The top 5 seems reasonable but the advice in the media release doesn’t seem to address the causes of the top 2 – Job Insecurity and Work Overload.  These are difficult hazards to address particularly as the causes may originate outside the workplace but the media release indicates that to be effective safety managers it is necessary to look beyond the company’s fenceline and accept that the prevention of harm is now just as much social and political as it is occupational.

The top 5 triggers of workplace stress according to AccessEAP are:

  • Job insecurity
  • Work overload
  • Organisational change
  • Conflict with managers or colleagues
  • Bullying and harassment

Such triggers are not unusual. In 2002 the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (JOEM) reported the following causes of stress at work:

  • long hours worked, work overload and pressure
  • the effects of these on personal lives
  • lack of control over work and lack of participation in decision making
  • poor social support
  • unclear management and work role and poor management style.

Another consulting firm proposes these stress factors:

  • Being out of sync with one’s career values
  • Consistently applying burn out skills rather than motivated skills
  • Being delegated responsibility without authority
  • Being expected to produce more work with fewer resources
  • Job and career uncertainty and insecurity
  • The pace of change
  • Balancing family and work obligations.

What is missing from the AccessEAP statement is a strategy for combating the top two triggers.  The media release said that

“employers can set up management courses and build resilience seminars to help employees understand and manage stress, but unless an organisation creates a culture of open communication and realistic, achievable demands and deadlines for employees, work overload and the stress it creates will continue to exist.” (emphasis added)

But that is as detailed as AccessEAP gets. “Work overload” can be managed and reduced but this would usually require additional resources and employers are hesitant to wear the associated costs.  The moral downside of this is that employers are prepared to exploit the mental wellbeing of their workers rather than review systems of work or increase the number of workers, which would be a more sustainable strategy.

Job insecurity is more problematic for employers.  Security will come from a sustainable and profitable company over which managers and executives have control but this success is often linked with the political and economic policies and strategies of government, over which managers have variable, if any, influence.  Industry associations certainly lobby government for favourable business climates but this is often based on “business sentiment” or estimates of “business confidence” rather than hard and independent evidence of economic hardship and impacts.

Some job insecurity also stems from the growing trend of workers “job hopping” through various careers over their lifetime.  Even those who are trained in essential trades often find it necessary to work outside their field.  Companies may be able to manage workplace stress by restructuring their business strategy to accommodate this social trend rather than  bemoaning the fact that they do not achieve their return on investment as workers skill up and change jobs and sometimes careers every four to six years or so.

EAPs, and other similar business consultants, would do well to partner up with companies or individuals who can develop or provide some of stress prevention strategies rather than trying to build resilience in individuals.  Such resilience training is intended to equip individuals to deal with the mental hardship that comes from insecurity and work overload instead of reducing the potential harm.  If employers really value their employees and profess to be an “employer of choice”, they will achieve a stronger employee loyalty by investigating the operational flaws that lead to stress catalysts rather than trying to “toughen up” their employees.  Employers need to realise the cause is not in the workers but in where they work.

JOEM has the best suggestions for reducing workplace stress of the articles quoted above, even while acknowledging the relevance of coping skills:

“Resources that help meet the pressures and demands faced at work include personal characteristics such as coping skills (for example, problem solving, assertiveness, time management) and the work situation such as a good working environment and social support.  These resources can be increased by investment in work infrastructure, training, good management and employment practices, and the way that work is organised. [emphasis added]

Historically, the typical response from employers to stress at work has been to blame the victim of stress, rather than its cause. Increasingly, it is being recognised that employers have a duty, in many cases in law,to ensure that employees do not become ill. It is also in their long term economic interests to prevent stress, as stress is likely to lead to high staff turnover, an increase in sickness absence and early retirement, increased stress in those staff still at work, reduced work performance and increased rate of accidents, and reduced client satisfaction. [emphasis added].”

Most EAPs are reactive because they have originated from the rehabilitation world but it does not have to be this way.  Some EAPs are hungry to reduce harm and will jump at the chance to be more preventative but they are rarely asked.  Most EAPs operate on retainers and companies could increase their return on investment by offering opportunities for EAPs to prevent harm rather than simply minimise damage.  Of course, if your EAP doesn’t “get” harm prevention, dump them, and get one with initiative and value for money. There are plenty out there.

Kevin Jones



Categories absenteeism, business, continuity, hazards, health, OHS, productivity, psychosocial, research, safety, Uncategorized, workplace

4 thoughts on “Harm prevention needs to look beyond the individual into the corporate and the systemic”

  1. Hi Kevin,
    I think your blog, the comments and links to research, including articles, is terrific work. I am very appreciative and I thank you sincerely.
    I completed a thesis in 2013 titled \’Feeling the heat: workers experiences of job stress in the Victorian Community Services Sector, and the linked article in current blog by S. Michie is an excellent read.
    Regards Dr. Lorraine Harrison

    1. Lorraine, I have a copy of your thesis on my home computer and although I didn\’t have time to read it all, I refer to it often. Are you able to share a URL to the thesis with SafetyAtWorkBlog readers? As you may know I am an avid promoter of OHS-related theses as untapped OHS knowledge.

  2. The conversation is really getting boring. The fundamental issue gets back to the reason unions were formed and society has not changed that much, with the few manipulating and ripping off the many in all aspects of their lives.

    Can we please see valid and doable alternatives before we witness the decent into real class warfare and don\’t tell me we haven\’t seen the development of seriously large and growing underclass that is becoming seriously subterranean.

    Too much waffle and not enough leaders.

    1. Tony, society may not have changed but trade union membership, and I would argue, influence has declined markedly over the last few decades. This fact was mentioned by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in June this year (\”The survey also shows that 17 per cent, or 1.7 million employees were trade union members in the main job, this being the lowest proportion in the history of the series.\” – http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbytitle/9F48D6BD3EAF15FACA25742A007C0E8F?OpenDocument ) This would indicate that change in most jobs will need to come from elsewhere. This could be through individual bargaining or some other form of collective pressure that has not yet manifested. I don\’t know.

      Certainly I have been in the situation many times, particular in freelancing or contract work, where I have negotiated hours and workload. It\’s not impossible but it does take experience and, I will admit, that I have drawn on advice from the Media Alliance in some of these negotiations.

      I agree that we do need leaders on the issue of job design and its OHS and productivity benefits. I am sure they are out there but perhaps they hesitate to voice their thoughts and achievements.

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