On psychosocial hazards, HR and OHS are getting closer……. slowly

In narrow terms, the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession has largely neglected the management of psychological harm in workplaces. Human Resources (HR) has been the “go-to” on this issue, but various government inquiries have identified major shortcomings in the HR approach. In a recent podcast, Tony Morris of law firm Ashurst interviewed an HR and OHS professional on sexual harassment and psychosocial risks at work.

In response to the question of whether these risks are no being accepted as work health and safety risks, Julia Sutherland responded that this reality has been accepted by OHS regulators but implies that the acceptance has not been to the same extent by employers. She reassures employers who have not been approaching these hazards through OHS laws and guidance that they should not be alarmed as the OHS context has only existed for “a couple of years”.

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Safety (funding) differently

When Tony Abbott was the (Liberal) Prime Minister, he reduced the commonwealth grants program substantially as part of his austerity and “debt” and deficit” strategies. This resulted in defunding many occupational health and safety (OHS) support and research units of trade unions, industry associations, etc. OHS has been poorly served ever since. The new (Labor) government has an opportunity to resurrect some of these OHS units by allocating some level of funding and, perhaps, expanding it beyond the traditional consultation triumvirate.

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A new workplace hazard – Long Covid

The policy impacts of COVID-19 were missing from the recently concluded federal election campaign in Australia, but the coronavirus persists and continues to kill. Other than the issue of mandatory vaccinations, the occupational health and safety (OHS) context, outside of the health and emergency services sectors, has not been addressed since the initial SafeWork Australia guidance in March 2020.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recently released a discussion paper on the “Impact of Long Covid on Workers and Workplaces and the Role of OSH”.

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Can you vote for OHS?

Australia is in the last few weeks of its federal election. Because it is a national election and occupational health and safety (OHS) is almost totally regulated at the State and Territory level, workplace health and safety is rarely if ever mentioned directly in campaign pledges. However, OHS does have a political campaign context if one accepts that some workplace hazards are caused or affected by social and government policies.

Australian Labor Party

The Australian Labor Party’s suite of campaign policies includes several items that could reduce the mental anguish in the community, thereby encouraging people to take jobs and making applicants more attractive to employers but there are no direct pledges on OHS. It states in its “Secure Australian Jobs” policy that:

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Prohibition on Administrative Controls for psychological health at work

The Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS) and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) annual breakfast physically returned this month after a few years of enforced absence. It kept its traditional structure – speeches from the local OHS regulator WorkSafe Victoria, representatives from HSF and AIHS and a summary of a salary survey report focused on occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals. The presentation that made the expense worthwhile came from one of HSF’s Regional Heads of Practice, Steve Bell, concerning new regulations for psychologically healthy workplaces.

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OHS record restated, but employers omitted

The WorkSafe Awards night for 2021 was postponed a couple of times from its traditional date in Workplace Health and Safety Month, October. The April 21, 2022, event held the potential for a political statement, given that 2022 is an election year for Victoria, and the event was held one week before International Workers Memorial Day. No such luck. We may have to wait for October 2022, a month before the November election.

The Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt, could not attend, but Bronwyn Halfpenny, the Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Safety, did. Halfpenny is very active in occupational health and safety (OHS) and the government’s working group of bereaved families, but her speech at the awards event reiterated the government’s OHS reforms. Like other members of the government, she gives a great deal of significance to Industrial Manslaughter changes. These changes have generated fear at senior management levels but little difference in employers’ commitment to improving workplace safety and health. A big stick is pointless unless it is used and used as intended.

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Burnout causes are organisational. Who knew?

This blog has written frequently about “burnout” in workplaces, especially since the condition was defined by the World Health Organisation in 2019. I have seen it used many times as a shortcut, or synonym, for workplace mental health but usually only at the corporate, executive level. Workers have breakdowns, but executives seem to suffer burnout.

Recently a book was published in the United States called “The Burnout Epidemic, or The Risk of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It”, by journalist Jennifer Moss. What is most outstanding about this book is that the recommended fix is organisational. Usually, burnout books from the States focus on the individual worker or executive. This fresh US perspective makes the book essential reading for if the US recognises how to fix burnout and chronic stress, any country can.

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