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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We need a revolution in how we think about working hours

If there was only one way available to improve the health and safety of workers in Australia, it would be to limit and enforce working hours to those in the official Awards and job descriptions.

This situation which would really be simply a case of working-to-rule, would need to be supported by other not unreasonable changes, in no particular order:

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We can control workplace mental health if we want to

Some years ago, Time Management was all the rage. It was the precursor to the resurgence of the Work Smarter – Not Harder movement, but it seems to have faded from conversation recently. Part of the reason is that everyone is expected to be contactable, every day, every week, every month. And then we wonder why there seems to be a workplace mental health crisis?!

The answer is simple – turn off your phone, turn off your work computer. This will cause some readers to shake and say that they cannot do that as their bosses expect them to be available. The unfairness of this was discussed a little in the article on “work-to-rule“, but the employers’ expectations are more than unfair. They indicate a poor manager who cannot manage their time and of a workplace culture that endorses this sloppiness/laziness. A recent New Zealand article looked at some of the recent trends.

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“Soldier On” should be “F### Off”

Many workers continue to work when sick. This is called presenteeism and in a time of infection pandemic, is a major problem. Many countries have addressed the COVID19 risks of presenteeism by requiring people to work from home if they can. In Australia, the message is not totally working with people ignoring the rules for various reasons.

However, presenteeism also has a deeper cultural and institutional origin that has been exploited by some and downplayed or ignored by others.

Continue reading ““Soldier On” should be “F### Off””

Suicides in China – is this a Foxconn problem or an Apple problem?

Foxconn, a large technology manufacturer in China has a cluster of suicides.  This issue is getting more attention than normal in Western media because the company manufactures products for Apple and the Apple iPad went on sale around the world at the same time news about the suicides broke.

The question that must be asked is “is this a Foxconn problem or an Apple problem?” Continue reading “Suicides in China – is this a Foxconn problem or an Apple problem?”

Does being fat equate to being unsafe at work?

There are several initiatives throughout the world under the banner of workplace health that have little relation to work.  They are public health initiatives administered through the workplace with, often, a cursory reference to the health benefits also having a productivity benefit.

So is a fat worker less safe than a thin worker?  Such a general question cannot be answered but it illustrates an assumption that is underpinning many of the workplace health initiatives.  There is little doubt that workers with chronic health conditions take more leave but, in most circumstances, this leave is already accounted for in the business plan.

Sick leave is estimated at a certain level for all workers across a workplace and, sometimes, a nation.  There is an entitlement for a certain amount of sick leave for all workers, fat and thin, “healthy” or “unhealthy”.  It certainly does not mean that the entitlement will be taken every year but the capacity is there and businesses accommodate this in their planning and costs.

Remove this generic entitlement so that only working hours remain.  Is a fat worker less productive than a thin worker?  Is a worker without any ailments more productive than a person with a chronic ailment?  Is a smoker more productive than a non-smoker or a diabetic or a paraplegic? Continue reading “Does being fat equate to being unsafe at work?”

Annual holidays get a TV makeover

Regardless of concerns over the veracity of data, Tourism Australia’s “No Leave, No Life” campaign is continuing to develop its media presence.

The Seven Network announced this week that “No Leave, No Life” will form the basis of a television program to be broadcast from 5 December 2009.  As is the nature of TV shows, when a new successful format is found, it can travel around the world. So, be warned.

The rationale of the “No Leave, No Life” tourism campaign is that employees hold on to their annual leave entitlements and amass many weeks’ leave.  The employer groups have supported this campaign, principally, because this reduces the salary reserves each company must carry to cover the entitlements.Individually, employees can convince themselves that they are indispensable.  The risk, from the workplace safety perspective, is that the individual is not accessing the mental health and stress relief that can come from being away from a workplace for several weeks.

Having no break from work mode can unbalance one’s life and put considerable strain on personal and family relationships.  Just like adequate sleep can have productivity benefits, so can taking annual leave on a regular basis

There is also the organisational benefit that can come from breaking the routine.  Just as individuals may come to believe they are indispensable, so an organisation can come to rely too heavily on individuals.  A healthy corporate system should be able to cope with the absence of any staff member or executive for a short period of time (the period of annual leave).

Business continuity would dictate that a business can continue without key people permanently.  Coping without these people for a short period each year can be considered a trial run of continuity.

In relation to the new television program the Seven Network advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that each episode is structured around the removal of a worker who has a large amount of annual leave from their workplace for a holiday within Australia (hence the Tourism Australia support).  The viewer appeal, other than watching someone else have a good time, is that a comedian is used to fill the role of the holidaying staff members.  The show is likely to illustrate several points – no one is indispensable, a regular holiday is an important individual activity, and, although not indispensable, the employee and their effort is valued by the organisation.

The show will follow people from these occupations:

  • a paediatric nurse in a cardiac ward;
  • a sales manager in a brewery
  • an ambulance paramedic; and
  • a charity events manager.

The OHS role and benefits of regular leave are not as overt in the program as they could be but that is not he purpose of the program.  It is clearly a program that would not have existed without the Tourism Australia campaign.  It has been designed to encourage Australians to take holidays and to holiday within Australia.

It is hoped that if and when people return to work refreshed they may realise how important regular leave is to their own wellbeing and mental health but having stress management or career burnout as a motivation for the employees themselves to take leave would have been more instructional.

Of course, it should be pointed out that businesses are doing themselves no good by allowing for the accumulation of excessive leave in the first place.  In fact, it could be argued that by not enforcing the taking of leave the companies are increasing the stress of their employees and contributing to the social dysfunction that can result from such a work.life imbalance.

Kevin Jones

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