Pfeffer cuts through on OHS

“…if we truly care about human beings and their lives, including how long people live…. we need to first understand and then alter those workplace conditions that sicken and kill people” (page 25 – “Dying For A Paycheck”)

Jeffrey Pfeffer has been doing the rounds of the Safety and Human Resources conferences for some time, talking about “dying for a paycheck”.  This year he published a book of that title, a book that should be obligatory reading for occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals and, more importantly, company executives.

This book is one of the few that I have read from cover-to-cover and wanted to do so in as short a time as possible because I wanted to understand the big interconnected picture of business management and policy setting that Pfeffer discusses.

Pfeffer presents a lot of data packaged in a fresh and fascinating form but regularly complains about the lack of data.  One of the joys in the book is being tantalised by what data he presents but then being frustrated when realising that that is the extent of the data available.  His insights illustrate just how little we know about the way we work and how we manage that work, particularly given that work is such a major part of our lives.

Pfeffer identifies five “things” that need to happen “if we are to reduce the costs to society and companies and eliminate the unnecessary deaths that come from companies’ harmful management practices”:

  • we need to measure health and well-being, just as we routinely measure environmental pollution and impact….
  • we need to call out “social polluters” for their toxic practices and workplaces, in the same way we highlight companies that harm the environment…….
  • we need policies that reflect the true costs and consequences of management’s decisions…….
  • we must reckon with excuses and false trade-offs – the reality that most companies do not confront a difficult trade-off between increasing employee health on the one hand or growing profits on the other………
  • we must insist that organisational leaders and public-policy groups priorities human sustainability and not allow it to be sacrificed at the first sign of economic distress or slighted to increase shareholder return regardless of the social costs……..” (Pages 193-194)

These “things” should raise a Hallelujah from readers but reread them, or better yet, read the expanded discussion in Pfeffer’s book, and think about the enormous impact these necessities could cause, and the effort required to change.

People have  been trying to measure health and well-being for a long time – the data is not sought, the basic format and criteria cannot be agreed on, there are privacy concerns……..  It is almost as if there is a conspiracy against clarity.  Throughout the book, Pfeffer says if we can determine the cost of damage, reclamations and rehabilitation of the environmental impacts of production, we should be able to achieve the same for people.  He also confronts the reader by having us reflect on why this lack of measurement has been allowed to continue.

The issue of “social polluters” is part of the #MeToo response and Pfeffer provides plenty of data on the impacts of incivility, abuse and disrespect. In discussing toxic workplaces he asks:

”If the workplace truly cared about productivity and performance, it just might embrace management practices that produce both well-being and high performance and eschew elements of the work environment that degrade both worker and company well-being.” (Page 186)

Pfeffer’s discussion of toxic workplaces throughout the book fits so well with the current discussions about workplace/safety/organisational culture and job design.

Pfeffer writes a lot about “social costs” and provides analysis that is pretty close to the Total Cost of Injury/Incident, especially in the Chapter “The Enormous Toll of Toxic Workplaces”.  He does not separate work from the society in which it occurs but highlights the dubious decisions made by government and policymakers in the non-work environment and the corporations and employers in the workplaces.  Sometimes these decisions conflict, sometimes they align but they all have direct effects on workers and their families.

On the issues of wellbeing, stress, addictions etc, he states that

”Companies know about these work-environment effects, but nonetheless fail to act.” (Page 30

This reality is observed every time an employer or industry group points at factors other than their own decisions as causes of business complexity, red tape or bureaucratic OHS paperwork.  (Business complaints about Safe Work Method Statements is an obvious example) Australia’s OHS/WHS laws clearly state that the employer/PCBU has a primary duty for workplace health and safety but, regardless of this long-established obligation, business owners look for ways to avoid or minimise these obligations.  Pfeffer would point out the substantial business benefits of embracing that obligation, integrating it in the company business plan, management and organisational structure.  The obligation exists, so make the best of it.

“Dying for a Paycheck” is predominantly an American book with local data for local readers but, perhaps because of his travels, Pfeffer is familiar with the research and operations of other countries.  He discusses workplace stress studies from Australia,  the work of Dame Carol Black in England, OECD work statistics  and the research of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, amongst others.  This allows an international readership and the book is much better for it.

In discussing the costs of ill employees to employers, he usefully excludes medical claims and healthcare costs.  For instance, Pfeffer writes

”… employers face at least three other adverse consequences from operating work environments that make people sick:

  • …if people sick enough, they quit…
  • …sicker employees incur higher workers’ compensation costs…
  • … less healthy employees are less productive…” (page 83)

OHS professionals have heard such statements before but Pfeffer provides evidence to back them up.

One of my frustrations with the book is the amount of “self-reported” data Pfeffer mentions.  It is frustrating because I want OHS evidence, I want safety facts, but the amount of self-reported mental and physical health data is a consequence of our reluctance to investigate and measure our management decisions, as mentioned above.  In many situations, self-reported or anecdotal data is all we have, which may be fine in the short-term but not for the long term, and long term covers a business’ lifespan and the working lives of people.

Pfeffer can be blunt and uncomfortable but this provides a clarity missing from many other OHS and management books. For instance, he writes in a discussion about working hours that

”Work time is the result of managerial decisions and discretion.” (Page 128)

In Australia, pay and conditions may be governed by Awards and Workplace Agreements but these are determined in consultation with employers and employees, usually these establish minimum working conditions. It is the decision of the employer to manage to the minimum rather than establishing working conditions and remuneration that maximize the value of the workforce an establish a sustainable business.  Pfeffer writes:

” Thus, the simplistic idea that work hours produce more output is incorrect.  After a while, exhausted workers produce more errors.  Extensive empirical evidence is consistent with the idea that above a certain threshold, reducing working hours would increase both employee health and productivity and job performance. There is no economic trade-off required to improve people’s well-being by having them work less.” (page 138)

Pfeffer cuts through much of the contemporary discussion about workplace health and safety management.  He acknowledges the existence of legislation but points out that this should not dominate the business owners’ thinking. He asks why we comply with one set of legislation, such as environmental, but ignore a similar type, OHS. He talks about the work environment not as something that simply exists, but something that is within the control of the business owners, should they wish to exercise control.

In reflecting, this book is largely about control – the control people can and cannot apply.  It encourages employers and business owners to take advantage of the control options with which they are presented.  Pfeffer often points out that the excuses employed by employers for not tackling OHS problems do not stand up, and that it is workers who physically and mentally suffer.

Kevin Jones

A recent audio interview with Jeffrey Pfeffer is available HERE.

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