We know how to prevent burnout but we have little desire to change

Probono Australia is reporting that employee burnout is on the rise. Burnout is increasingly being used as an alternative term for mental ill-health or stress at work. The report on which the writer based their article is not surprising, but the recommendations are. The subheading for the article is:

““Structural and cultural shifts, not wellness initiatives, are needed to address the chronic workplace stress of burnout.”

But the article also pulls together other workplace mental health factors:

“The rise of digitisation has brought with it a need to  ‘always be on’ and, with that, employee work-life balance has become harder to maintain. It was this type of ‘24/7 access to employees’ thinking, the study found, that led to burnout.”

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A good job is also a safe job

At the moment, “The Great Resignation” remains a United States phenomenon, but part of that movement involves a reassessment of one’s job. Is it a good job? Is it meaningful work? Is it a good job now but likely not in the future? I would include my occupational health and safety perspective (OHS) and ask if it is a safe job, but I accept that my perspective is far from universal.

Recently Sarah O’Connor wrote in the Financial Times about the importance of having a decent boss. She wrote that

“Economists are increasingly of the opinion that the quality of jobs matter as much as their quantity”

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The OHS benefits of “work to rule”

In May 2020, “work to rule” was touched on in a long article about the future of work. “Work To Rule” is a phrase that is rarely heard now, as the industrial relations (IR) conversation has changed, but it is more relevant than ever.

The industrial relations context for working to the rules is illustrated in this short article. Still, work to rule can have occupational health and safety (OHS) benefits, especially psychosocial health and the current mot du jour, The Great Resignation/Rebalance.

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OHS remains the bastard child of HR and IR

There continues to be a competitive tension in Australia between the professions (if they are professions) of Human Resources (HR) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). This has been most obviously on display in relation to sexual harassment and the psychological harm that results.

Recently Marie Boland, about to be the 2021 Residential Thinker at the University of South Australia, spoke about this tension and much more in an online lecture about “HR: A Human Resources or a Human Rights approach to work health and safety“. At that lecture, Boland said that she pins her hopes for improvement on the new Work Health and Safety Regulations because

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Ageing and Decent Work report

A recent academic commentary on “Aging and the Future of Decent Work”* by many international researchers contains some interesting thoughts on employer obligations and health promotion.

The report makes some specific comments about the effectiveness of health promotion programs for older workers:

Workplace health promotion programs may encounter obstacles that impede desired results. For example, employers are generally not obliged to promote employee health in the same way they are required to address workplace safety. Lack of resources, management resistance, and employee reluctance to change behaviors are common barriers to program success. The literature on health promotion interventions targeting older workers is sparse but suggests the effectiveness of such programs may be limited and may vary depending on the focus of the intervention.

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Time for a rebrand to Organisational Health and Safety?

Outside of unionised workplaces, psychological hazards are usually managed as part of the Human Resources (HR) function. HR’s principal reference point is the industrial relations (IR) laws. Occupational health and safety (OHS) overlaps with IR and HR but is usually treated as the annoying little brother following his siblings, who know better because they are older and closer to adulthood.

This situation must change for employers to effectively prevent mental ill-health in their workplaces, but it will require more concessions, or maturity, from Human Resources professionals. Lawyer Alena Titterton hinted at this change in a recent article for the Australian Institute of Health and Safety.

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Off-centre perspectives can offer great potential

The Australian government has failed to follow through on its early promises to provide a framework for employers to prevent and reduce sexual harassment in their workplaces. This failure is being interpreted as revealing something about employers’ attitudes to occupational health and safety (OHS) and their own legislative duties.

Employers (and other groups on non-OHS issues) who look to the government for guidance on issues that already have legislative requirements are looking to avoid the social and legal obligations that have usually existed for years. Sexual harassment is an excellent example of a workplace matter getting some serious attention regardless of the government’s inaction. A recent podcast by Maddocks lawyers Catherine Dunlop and Tamsin Webster is part of that attention.

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