“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.

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

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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?

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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

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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

Unpaid overtime is the new danger money

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In Australia there is increasing pressure to work more hours than what one is paid for. Many different organisations use this fact to push for various improved benefits, in many circumstances the statistics are used in support of wage improvements.

But working beyond contracted hours will certainly affect one’s work/life balance as there are only so many hours in the day and if work dominates one’s life, family time or rest will be sacrificed. The imbalance leads to a range of negative psychological and social actions. An article in Wikipedia on working time summarises this.

“In contrast, a work week that is too long will result in more material goods at the cost of stress-related health problems as well as a “drought of leisure.”  Furthermore, children are likely to receive less attention from busy parents, and childrearing is likely to be subjectively worse.  The exact ways in which long work weeks affect culture, public health, and education are debated.”

Australia has yet to have the debate on the matter of working hours that has been seen in Europe and England but the issue exists very much in Australia, although it has yet to gain any traction.

According to a media report by the Australian Council of Trade Unions a new research report by the Australia Institute

“… found that each year, the average full-time Australian worker does 266.6 hours of unpaid overtime, or an extra six-and-a-half working weeks…. The think tank estimates that through unpaid overtime, workers are forgoing a total of $72.2 billion in wages or 6% of GDP.”

The Australian Institute report found the following

  • Forty-five per cent of all Australian workers, and more than half of all full-time employees, work more hours than they are paid for during a typical workday.
  • Unpaid overtime is more common among people who work a ‘standard’ business workday (that is, not shift work) and among white-collar workers.
  • Workplace culture is a dominant contributing factor, with 44 per cent of people who work unpaid overtime saying that it is ‘compulsory’ or ‘expected’ and another 43 per cent saying that it is ‘not expected, but also not discouraged’.
  • Across the workforce, the average employee works 49 minutes unpaid during a typical workday.
  • Full-time employees work 70 minutes of unpaid overtime on average, while parttime employees work 23 minutes.
  • Men work more unpaid overtime than women (63 minutes versus 36 minutes a day). Men with young children work a great deal more than women with young children (71 minutes compared with 30 minutes).
  • Unpaid overtime increases with income: people in low-income households work an average of 28 minutes of unpaid overtime a day compared with 61 minutes for people in high-income households.
  • When asked what would happen if they didn’t work unpaid overtime, most say that ‘the work wouldn’t get done’, suggesting that the demands placed on employees are too much for many people.
  • A majority of survey respondents who work additional hours said that if they didn’t work overtime they would spend more time with family, and many said that they would do more exercise.

The report clearly states that allowing “unpaid overtime” has a strong cost in social and individual health but there is an OHS perspective that over gets overlooked due to public health and industrial relations dominating the issue.

In a media statement from October 2009, as an example, Deloittes quoted some scientists, in support of a anti-sleep device, on statistics that have been bandied around for some time:

“…scientists equate fatigue to blood-alcohol levels: if a person has been awake for 18 hours, it’s the equivalent of having a .05 level of alcohol in their body; if they have been awake for 21 hours, it’s equivalent to a.08 level.”

There are several further examples on negative health impacts in the Australia Institute report.

It can be strongly argued that by allowing, or expecting, “unpaid overtime”, employers may be encouraging workers to travel home while impaired and that employers are creating a work/life imbalance by requiring “unpaid overtime”.   Certainly it could be argued that even during unpaid overtime, the cognitive function of the employee is less than expected, or even have the worker unfit for work.

Arguing about unpaid overtime clearly makes the debate one of money not safety or wellness or the social contract, and this is the argument’s inherent weakness.

Arguing for compensation for “unpaid overtime” is arguing for “danger money” – how much money will a worker accept in order to keep working into the unhealthy and dangerous hours beyond their regular contracted hours?  This type of argument disappeared almost twenty years ago in Australia when the Australian awards system was reformed to remove allowances in relation to working at heights, picking up roadkill, or working in excessive heat.   It was agreed that “danger money” was inappropriate and that OHS principles demanded the risks involved with these tasks be reduced rather than “paying workers” to place themselves at risk.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence, in his media statement in support of Go Home on Time Day, and The Australia Institute in its media statement on its report both underplay a major point in the debate on working hours when they argue in economic terms.  Lawrence says

“If the work demands are too much to complete in a normal working day, then employees should be paid for their extra hours, or their employer must hire more staff.”

The institute mentions wellness in passing but emphasises in its media release

“..the 2.14 billion hours of unpaid overtime worked per year is a $72 billion gift to employers and means that 6% of our economy depends on free labour.”

Employing more staff is preferable but removing the culture of unpaid overtime is far more important.   Arguing on the basis of economics, ie “being paid for their extra hours”, may expose the worker to greater risk of injury or illness at the workplace or on the way home.   Quality of life, work/life balance and personal health and safety are stronger arguments for “going home on time”, arguments supported by The Australia Institute and the Australian Greens.

Kevin Jones