OHS context of leave entitlements

Family-friendly work initiatives always get increased attention around International Women’s Day.  This is a shame as work/life balance is not gender specific, however the dominant Western family structures make the application of the concept relative to gender.  As long as the matter is perceived as a “women’s issue”, it will struggle for attention in a basically patriarchal society.

Family-friendly work structures are predominantly associated with hours of work and leave entitlements.  These don’t seem to be OHS matters as they are mostly handled through HR or the pay department however there is a link and it is a link that work/life and work/family advocates may use as a strong argument for their cause.

Leave is a worker entitlement for several reasons:

  • Situations may occur where the employee is required to stay home to look after an ill relative;
  • The employee may stay home as they are too sick to work; and
  • The employee may feel they need time away from work to rebalance their lives.

The second point has an OHS relevance because going to work while sick may introduce a hazard to your work colleagues – presenteeism.  In many jurisdictions it is a breach of an employee’s OHS legislative obligations to not generate hazards for their work colleagues or members of the public while at work.

The third point relates to an individual’s management of stress and/or fatigue.

In Australia, some workplaces allow for “doona days” (or for those in the Northern hemisphere’s winter at the moment “duvet days”).  These are days where a workplace and the employee would benefit psychologically from some time-out in order to “reboot”.

It may also be a valid fatigue management mechanism where long hours have been worked to the extent where attending the workplace may present hazards to others, or to themselves by feeling impaired, or have the employee working well below the appropriate level of attentiveness for the job to be properly done.

Leave entitlements, to some extent, form part of the employer’s legislative obligations to have a safe and healthy work environment.  But they also support the worker’s obligations to look after themselves and not present hazards to others.

The OHS element of leave entitlements should be emphasized when discussions of family-friendly workplaces occur.  Not only does it legitimately raise the profile of OHS in business planning, it can add some moral weight to an issue that can get bogged down in industrial relations.

Some readers may want to check out recent presentations to the US Senate in early-March 2009, by various people on the issue of family-friendly work structure.  These include

Eileen Appelbaum, Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University,

Dr Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund,

Rebia Mixon Clay, a home health care worker who cares for her brother in Chicago. (Rebia’s video is below)

Kevin Jones

Happiness is a warm million

The Australian newspapers in late-February shared the “outrage” of politicians and then the community over training that was provided to public servants by the American “happiness guru” Professor Martin Seligman.

The cost to the taxpayer seems exorbitant but the psychologist was from the US and was training delegates for many days.  It is not unusual for US experts to charge over $US600 per hour plus travel and accomm0dation.

The Community & Public Sector Union‘s Assistant National Secretary Paul Gepp noted  in a media statement that news of the expensive conference, which paid an American psychologist’s team more than $440,000, came with news of more layoffs of  public servants, as 100 lost their jobs in the Crime Commission. 

“Public servants are working hard to keep essential services going, keep our communities safe and make the stimulus package work,” said Mr Gepp.  “Million-dollar, feel-good conferences don’t help get these jobs done. If the Government is looking to cut, we suggest it starts with junkets like this.” 

The OHS context of this furore comes from the reasons for the training and whether the same benefits could have been obtained at a reduced price.

Media reports say that in parliament on 26 February 2009

“[Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Julia] Gillard attacked Liberal frontbencher Andrew Southcott for attempting to “parody” Professor Seligman, who she described as a “noted educationalist”.
“He is the leader in the development of (a) resiliency program that has been shown to make a difference to mental health issues amongst young people, including issues like anorexia and depression.  That is actually serious and ought not to be cat-called about.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the workloads of the public sector under the Rudd government and how the government has chosen not to set reasonable production targets.  The Seligman seminars are an example of trying to treat the symptoms and not the cause.   Seligman’s programs are not the issue here as the results claimed may be absolutely justified.  

Part of the problem for the government is timing, and in this, it shares a lot with behavioural-based safety programs.  Whenever a company introduces a wellbeing program, or a happiness seminar, or resilience training, or a team-building extreme sports excursion, it indicates to me that either the company is one that has already tried the traditional approaches to controlling workplace hazards, hasn’t  the faintest ides what to do to improve the safety in their workplace , or has too much money in its human resources budget and needs to spend it by the end of the financial year.

Regrettably, the money spent on public service mental health has been poorly targeted and papers over the cracks whilst ignoring the structural instability of how it manages its people.

Kevin Jones

Chronic disease report

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released a report on the labour force effects of chronic illnesses.  The report, Chronic disease and participation in work,

shows that chronic diseases are associated with more days off work and/or being out of the workforce, and some of the biggest culprits are depression, arthritis and asthma.

The report focuses on chronic illnesses rather the workplace impacts of the illnesses themselves but there is information that is relevant to how we manage our employees and psychosocial hazards.  For instance the report says

Arthritis, asthma and depression were associated with 76% of the total loss due to days away from work (29% associated with depression, 24% with arthritis and 23% with asthma).

For people participating full-time in the labour force, there was a loss of approximately 367,000 person-years associated with chronic disease, approximately 57,000 person-years in absenteeism associated with chronic disease and 113,000 person-years were lost due to death from chronic disease.

The report acknowledges that any estimates of loss are underestimated and also provides very useful data on chronic diseases and absenteeism

Loss due to absenteeism from full-time and part-time employment was calculated as the difference between the number of days off work for people with chronic disease, and the number expected if age and sex-specific rates of absenteeism among people without chronic disease applied.

The loss from absenteeism associated with chronic disease was approximately 500,000 days per fortnight. This was equivalent to approximately 13.2 million days per year or 57,000 person-years of full-time participation (assuming 48 working weeks of 5 days duration with 10 public holidays per year).

About two-thirds of this cost was carried by males, and people aged 35-44 and 45-54 years accounted for the majority (75%) of lost days.

Analysis of absenteeism by specific chronic disease showed that depression, arthritis and asthma were associated with around 76% of days away from work.

Workplace bullying – interview with Lawrence Lorber (2002)

In April 2002, I interviewed Lawrence Lorber of US law firm Proskauer Rose on workplace bullying.  It was at the height of the Enron collapse and corporate behaviour towards staff was gaining a lot of attention.  Over the last fortnight I have been researching some of the management books and concepts concerning leadership, emotional intelligence, modern expectations of managers – all of which could be thrown into “workplace culture.”

As I was reading back issue of the SafetyATWORK magazine, I used to published, there seemed to be valuable comments from Lawrence that remain relevant.  Below is an extract of the interview.  The full interview is available HERE

SAW: In Australia, the approach to workplace bullying seems to be coming from a systemic management system rather than one relying on psychological assessment.

LL: The highly competitive and highly contentious nature of what is coming out about Enron, the “up or out” atmosphere is one aspect of a system that can lead to managers or co-workers to engage in bullying. The characteristics of being tough or abrasive may be necessary to get ahead in the organisation. The environment can encourage or create bullying tendencies. However, not everybody turns into Attila the Hun in a highly competitive environment. Others survive without taking on the attributes of the bully.

Psychological testing is frequently applied in the States with regard to executive promotions. Dealing with bullying does require a combination of the systemic and individual approach. I work for some companies who are publicly perceived as fairly aggressive, there are tough people there who I might not want to work for but they are effective. They might be perceived as bullies. But looking at bullying as an environmental issue does mask the problem.

SAW: Managers sometimes need to motivate a staff member, perhaps, by rebuking them. The receiver of the rebuke may perceive that as bullying. How can we balance these perceptions?

LL: There were management books in the States in the 1980s, which encouraged management by intimidation. At one point that was the vogue. After the movie PATTON came out, everyone wanted to be General Patton.

If you look at a harsh manager who is demanding in an abrasive manner, that could be bullying.

How do you define bullying? Do you define it by your own reaction? A very US example is sex harassment. Is harassment in the eyes of the beholder? Does it have to be a reasonable woman who believes she is being harassed? In the circumstance where the bully is a male and the recipient is a female, frequently that becomes harassment.

SAW: That is a problem for the managers where for the last 30 years, harassment, bullying and discrimination has been handled outside the OHS field, in Human Resources. Now there are national and international moves to combat bullying because of the stress at work issues. I haven’t seen that approach in the United States.

LL: Here it’s not health and safety. Our definition of harassment is an “intimidating atmosphere”. That can also be a definition of bullying.

I don’t think it will be considered as a health and safety issue because workplace stress is not a field that is devoid of regulation. It is simply being regulated in a different context-employment discrimination and to a lesser extent under the disability laws. 

 

SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image
SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image

Upcoming OHS Videos

At the end of March 2009, the Safety Institute of Australia (Victoria Division) is conducting its annual Safety In Action conference.  In order to help promote the conference the SIA organised for several conference speakers to be filmed.

The filming occurred in early-February 2009 and the short 10-minutesia-filming-2009-01videos will be available at the Safety In Action website in a couple of week’s time.  The subjects of the videos are:

Jill MCabe of WorkSafe Victoria who talks about the research WorkSafe has undertaken in order to establish a better profile of their clients so as to improve assistance and advice.  Jill has long experience in industrial relations and now focuses on health and safety.

Helen Marshall was appointed Australia’s Federal Safety Commissioner in August 2008.  Helen discusses her experiences in dealing with a national system for safety on building and construction sites and reveals her first ever “real” job.

Dr Martyn Newman explains what he means by describing some leaders as “emotional capitalists”.  He sees that as a good thing to be but isn’t ego an emotion and greed an emotion?  And aren’t those the emotions that that have generated a lot of our social and financial heartbreak?  Is there is such a thing as an “emotional socialist”?  Dr Newman’s  presentation at the conference will be popular but it’s application may be obscure or challenging.

John Merritt, the CEO of WorkSafe, is genuinely passionate about improving society and seems to feel that OHS is a valuable way to improve the quality of people’s lives. [I first spoke with John in the early 1990s while he was in the ACTU.  The only thing I knew about him was that he had written a book about shearers.  I spoke next with him while he was CEO of the  National Safety Council and now (twice) while he is at WorkSafe.  If our paths continue to cross, he owes me a beer and two hours of unrecorded conversation in a comfortable bar.]

Barry Sherriff, a lawyer with Freehills, has just come off nine months of serving on the National OHS Review panel and is hamstrung in what he can say as the government is yet to release the final report.  His presentation was measured and cautious.

The videos provide an interesting cross-section of OHS approaches in Australia, several overlap and some are “out there” but the best that can be said is that one learns.  This makes for a terrific Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones


HR vs. OHS

I have written elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog concerning the silo mentality of managers in relation to human resources and OHS.  This weekend a reader posted the following comment on this blog:

“You are right about the divide between HR & OHS.  Fact is HR are the culprits of negligence, they exist to support Management.  Any one with a serious complaint thinks long and hard before sticking their neck out and going to HR…”

What struck me about this comment was that human resources was seen to be aligned with management whereas workplace safety was not.  A successful safety management system cannot exist in conflict with other management systems but how much compromise does OHS need to make to achieve an integrated management position?

I am sure that HR professionals would not perceive their position in the same way as above but I remember a colleague once saying that safety professionals were on the same level of influence to companies as hairdressers.  Perhaps OHS professionals are envious of the level of influence that HR professionals seem to have with senior management and say such things from bitterness.

At some time or other we all feel less than relevant to employers but  circumstances have a way of re-establishing relevance, sadly in OHS this is often and injury or a compensation claim.

I don’t believe that the disciplines of HR and OHS are incompatible but I have seen many instances in companies where the HR Manager sees OHS as divisive, particularly in the areas of stress and bullying.  I believe that HR professionals by-and-large have a poor understanding of how safety should be managed in companies but that is not necessarily the fault of the HR professional.  OHS professionals need to be far more analytical of their own actions and purpose within organisational structures and start being active.

Kevin Jones

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