On May 11 2020, the Australian Financial Review’s back page ran an article (paywalled)about how “corporates” are becoming aware of mental health risks due to the COVID19 disruption. It is a good article but also one that reveals the dominant misunderstanding about mental health at work and how to prevent it.
Improvement in occupational health and safety (OHS) standards has always been the intention of OHS laws. Parallel to this is the intention of the OHS, and allied, professions to continuously improve health and safety through the prevention of harm. However, political leadership on OHS has been scarce over the last few years, especially in the national governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. So, it is necessary to look beyond the party politics to other sources of change.
At the recent scientific meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine in Adelaide, prominent academic, Professor Maureen Dollard, introduced a much- needed element of political science into her presentation which was titled “Work Organisation and Psychosocial Factors”. SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to ask Dollard, and fellow presenter Professor Sally Ferguson, about this political context.
SafetyAtWorkBlog believes the fact that commercial vehicles are also workplaces remains under-utilised in Australia. There are hints that this position is shared by others and that the analysis of occupational health and safety (OHS) in the transport sector is maturing. An Issues Paper released in May 2019 by the Productivity Commission (PC) as party of the review of the 2009 National Transport Regulatory Reform program looks at potential safety outcomes.
In each of the sectors within the reform program – heavy vehicles, rail and maritime – safety improvements, enhancements and improvements were expected. The PC accepts the multidisciplinary and multi-factorial elements of OHS:
“…. the national laws and regulators are only one influence on safety outcomes. The multiplicity of influences on safety outcomes raises challenges for measurement of the contribution of the national system to any changes in safety outcomes since the system was introduced. The Commission envisages that the direct net benefits from safety related reforms must be assessed by the use of simple methods such as benchmarking (including to other countries) and other descriptive analyses. For example, Hassall (2014) estimates the accident rate (broken down by accident severity) per 100 million kilometres.”page 12
(Given that the PC has a separate inquiry into mental health, it will be interesting to see if this perspective is consistent across different sectors)
There are a few occupational health and safety (OHS) matters in Australia that happened in the last week that are of note. SafetyAtWorkBlog has put together a quick list of those matters of interest.
Big Mental Health Challenge
“The Australian Capital Territory has appointed its first “dedicated psychological health officer [who] will equip workplaces with the tools and resources needed to support the social and emotional wellbeing of working Canberrans.
The psychological health officer will provide employees, managers and supervisors with support such as information sessions, accessible resources and training programs. WorkSafe ACT inspectors will also receive training and access to ongoing mentoring for responding to psychological hazards.”
The Australian Government has released the terms of reference into its Productivity Commission inquiry into mental health. The inquiry has broad aims that clearly include occupational health and safety (OHS) and may set some evidence challenges for some of those in the workplace wellbeing sector:
“It will look at how governments across Australia, employers, professional and community groups in healthcare, education, employment, social services, housing and justice can contribute to improving mental health for people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.” (emphasis added)
“the Commission should consider the role of mental health in supporting economic participation, enhancing productivity and economic growth.”
“The Committee Chair, Mr Trent Zimmerman MP, stated that ‘the Committee will examine the causes, economic and social costs, and treatment of inadequate sleep and sleep disorders.” (link added)
Although there is no timetable for the tabling of this Committee’s final report, many of the issues raised in the submissions relate directly to work and work-related mental health risks. Sadly there are hardly any solutions but this is a challenge to all public inquiries and which is particularly relevant to the current spate of Australian inquiries into OHS and mental health.
Most non-transport industries do not look for the lack of sleep or fatigue as a factor in their investigations. Unless a formal investigation is undertaken, fatigue is rarely mentioned and, if it is, it is categorised as a “contributory factor”, which often means it is given such a low priority that nothing will be done about it. This is partly a legacy of silo thinking that sleep is a non-work personal activity, which it is, but is still one that can affect work and all the relationships and decisions made at work. But it is also partly due to the enormous disruption that could result if the lack of sleep and fatigue were taken seriously and effective control measures were introduced.
The most effective control for fatigue may be human-friendly shifts and “reasonable” working hours but that might not fit the shift rosters which are required to satisfy clients. We know that night shift has higher health and physical risks than day shift so logically, get rid of night shift ….