Workplace depression approaches are too narrow

Free Access

Further to other SafetyAtWorkBlog posts concerning Ms Paula Wriedt’s sacking, Ms Wriedt has issued a statement expressing her disappointment at Premier David Bartlett’s decision.

One comment from a newspaper columnist struck me as odd but worthy of note.  The columnist said that Paula Wriedt’s public statements have followed the line pushed by beyondblue, a depression support and lobby group.  I have had no dealings with beyondblue but note that newspaper articles often end with “For further information on depression contact…..” similarly television news reports.

beyondblue has been a spectacular success in self-promotion and, hopefully, increasing awareness of depression.  In the context of the Premier’s decision on Paula Wriedt, David Bartlett contacted the chair of beyondblue (and former Victorian Premier) Jeff Kennett, prior to his decision.  The Weekend Australian newspaper reported

“I have not taken this decision lightly; in fact, decisions don’t come any tougher than this,” Mr Bartlett said. He received support from former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, the chairman of depression support group Beyondblue.

After speaking to Mr Bartlett, Mr Kennett told The Weekend Australian he believed the decision was a very tough call for the Premier, but added: “When you balance up all his responsibilities, the correct one. It might just be what Paula needs to start rebuilding her health.  That is, she doesn’t have other ministerial responsibilities now and she can now focus more directly on her recovery.”

beyondblue does admirable work and has acheived much but it is dominating the discussions on psychosocial issues in the workplace.  It is difficult for other groups to raise matters that are just as relevant to the workplace, if not more so, such as occupational violence, stress, dignity at work, and so on.

We are not yet clear on all the circumstances of Paula Wriedt’s suicide attempt, and we may never know.  We do not know if work stresses or private stresses caused her self-harm but that is not necessarily the point.  Occupational health and safety long ago left the confines of the workplace and controlling workplace hazards, particularly psychosocial issues, needs a bigger canvas.  There must be an approach that assists the individual in work and non-work contexts. 

Some countries and States are trying this through work/life balance initiatives but the approaches are usually skewed to focus on interventions on the individual rather than looking at the social structures.  In OHS we look at the “system of work” to determine the most effective interventions.  To affect true and lasting change, we must apply the “system of living”.  We must be careful not to over-emphasise the individual and be distracted from the cultural initiatives.

Countering Customer Aggression

Free Access

Other than drunken pub patrons, customer anger seems to be common in social security offices.  In Australia, until recently, there were few screens or barriers between staff and customers, perhaps an indication of Australia’s egalitarian culture, or perhaps, naiveté of current reality.  

Centrelink, Australia’s social security agency, responded to the workplace hazard by banning those customers from face-to-face contact.  Several people complained about this restriction and the complaints were investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, whose report was released today, 25 August 2008.  The Ombudsman found

“that in most instances the decisions to withdraw face-to-face contact were not unreasonable, but highlighted the need for national procedural guidelines to be developed to assist staff when managing customers who exhibit abusive or threatening behaviour.”

This justifies the removal of face-to-face contact, or in OHS terms, the risk has been eliminated.

However, the safety of staff may have been guaranteed but the anger of the client might still remain.  It is in this context that the Ombudsman has recommended further changes to processes for the benefit of staff and clients.

Centrelink should be 

reviewing letter templates to ensure customers are properly notified of their review rights and the review process

implementing strategies to ensure relevant staff are aware of the review processes required by the guidelines, and providing further training where appropriate

introducing an appropriate internal monitoring/review mechanism to ensure quality and consistency in the application of alternative service arrangements

encouraging decision makers to explore the most appropriate alternative servicing arrangement for future contact before deciding to withdraw face-to-face contact

amending the guidelines to ensure staff record an appropriate level of detail to justify their actions and decisions following an instance of aggressive behaviour.

The Ombudsman’s report is available for download HERE

New work accommodation for Torres Strait nurses

Free Access

In February 2008, a nurse was raped in her remote house on Mabuiag Island.  The accommodation was provided as part of her occupation and risk assessments have identified that the house was not secure, poorly maintained and, in my opinion, unsafe. Previous SafetyAtWorkBlog posts on this issue are available HERE.

Stephen Robertson, Minister for Health
Stephen Robertson, Minister for Health

On 19 August 2008, the Queensland Minister for Health, Stephen Robertson, officially opened primary health centres on both Warraber and Erub Islands.

The Warraber Island facility cost $A4.45 million and includes:

  • two, two-bedroom staff accommodation units
  • expanded clinical areas
  • a dental chair
  • a conference room.

The $6.84 million Erub Island facility includes:

  • a three-bedroom doctor’s residence
  • two, two-bedroom staff accommodation units
  • expanded clinical areas, including a dental chair, a morgue, and a conference room for video conferencing.

The media release emphasizes a feature rarely mentioned:

“Both centres have secure accommodation units to ensure the safety of local health staff.”

Theses costs are for upgraded clinics with very good facilities and housing is only part of the projects.

Beth Mohle, Assistant Secretary with the Queensland Nurses Union, told me today that the official opening of these facilities had been delayed for several months due to the difficult of providing a reliable electricity supply to the clinics.  These facilities had been planned for a considerable time, well before the February 2008 attack.  In fact the previous facilities on Erub Island had been so bad that the facility was condemned.

Beth said that the new clinics had been assessed by the union’s OHS officer in March 2008 and found to be very suitable.  There were several minor security issues but the union was generally happy with the clinics.

A formal maintenance schedule for the facilities has been committed to be the government.

Beth said that the remaining outstanding issue for negotiation with Queensland Health is the operation of duress buttons for its members. However a trial of a satellite-based system through Skynet Mobile Communications is under way where the community police will be informed immediately of any problems.  

The underlying challenge for all OHS issues in Torres Strait seems to be the remoteness.  Many of the islands have no mobile phone communication coverage and nursing staff have only recently received automobiles.  Previously wheelbarrows were used for transporting equipment on the islands.

To update readers about the circumstances of the nurse who was attacked on Mabuig Island, the case against the attackers is still before the Courts.  The nurse is no longer working in that profession and she has a WorkCover claim relating specifically to the effects of the attack.  

Beth Mohle spoke optimistically about the progress made on the campaign to improve housing and facilities in these remote communities but we must remember the unnecessarily unsafe conditions that workers were expected to operate in.  The future may be hopeful but much of this hope is built on pain and trauma.

Would you fire someone who could fire back?

Free Access

Any gun issue in the United States comes down to the right to bear arms but what happens when that right conflicts with the employers’ obligations to provide a safe working environment and one without risks to health.

On 9 April 2008 Reuters reported on a new law in Florida that allows employees to take their guns to work.  The law would “prohibit business owners from banning guns kept locked in motor vehicles on their private property.”

The law has now been tested at Disneyworld and NPR provides an audio report on the issue.