“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

Unpaid overtime is the new danger money

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

The retention of leave indicates a broken business

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ACCI) has released a statement that discusses the economic and personal costs of presenteeism in relation to Australia’s new National Employment Standards.

In the statement the ACCI mentions:

“…the colossal national stockpile of annual leave and its toxic impact on the wellbeing of business and employees.”

“It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes or even Dr Watson to deduce that employees who take their annual leave are far less likely to take a ‘sickie’ due to fatigue or illness.”

The statistics quoted by ACCI include:

  • 123 million days stockpiled nationally.
  • $33.3 billion value to national leave stockpile.
  • 73% of national leave stockpilers are likely to be managers and earn more than $70K per annum.
  • 71% of leave stockpilers nationally are likely to be male.
  • 73% of leave stockpilers consider work/life balance to be important to their lives.
  • 70% of leave stockpilers consider taking leave to be a good way to achieve work/life balance.

It is not unreasonable to assert that the excessive retention of leave by an individual is an indication that that person does not understand that annual leave is an important element of their own mental health and safety at work.

If an executive believes they are indispensable to the company then that executive is making poor OHS decisions that flow to other employees.  Just as positive change can come from the senior management so can unhealthy work practices.  The retention of leave is just such a practice.

In a broader corporate and management context, the retention of excessive leave is an indication of a poorly managed business.  Leave, and its mental health benefits, should be integrated into the operational business strategy.  No one should be indispensable in a work role, although it is acknowledged that Plan B’s are not always as effective as Plan A’s.

Business continuity and risk management demand that contingencies be put in place for prolonged absences, or short leave breaks.

ACCI has to be admired for bringing the retention of leave to the attention of its members but the release is principally an information leaflet for a government tourism website.  Being physically absent from work is very different from being mentally absent from work.

To achieve a proper break from work, contact with the workplace and clients must be severed.  Even in this situation it may take several days to break out of “work mode”, to stop reaching for the mobile phone, to stop worrying about whether a work task is being done and to start the process of relaxing.

A “good” workplace, a “workplace of choice”, should have work management structures in place to allow its employees to recuperate from the pressures of work.  This is beyond flexible work structures and needs a business to thoroughly understand the mental health needs of its workers and business continuity.

Kevin Jones

The original research data for the figures above has been located and is available elsewhere on SafetyAtWorkBlog

Maintain instead of repair

Every country has its share of high-fliers who “burn out”.  Many fade away from the public eye with their careers over.  Frequently this path to wealth and prominence is not perceived as a workplace health or safety matter.  Some people decide that the health trade-off of multi-million dollar salaries is worth it.

Sadly the psychological reality of this personal decision is often masked by clichés.  Frequently, executives say that a major motivation for their decision is “to spend more time with my family”.  Many executives may believe this to be a major part of their decision, but regrettably, this worthy sentiment has become a cliché – the equivalent of a beauty pageant winner working toward “world peace”.

The family-time phrase/reason/excuse signifies an important element of the executive’s personality.  They were willing to sacrifice decades of their relationship with their partner and to be absent from the development of their children for money.

If any of these departing executives use the family-time phrase in the same departure speech or media exit-interview  as regaining “control of their lives” to “re-engage with the most important people in my life”, ask the executives, or politicians, “how do you justify ignoring your family over your career?”.

In some cases one could be more specific.  “Do you think that your multi-million career was related to your daughter’s persistent attempts to kill herself?”  “After being absent so frequently and for so long, are you still justified in describing your marriage as a loving relationship, or your partner as your ‘soulmate’?”  “Was your million-dollar salary really worth it?”

Int he wake of the self-generated corporate financial crisis, some corporate executives are re-examining their ethics and morality.  Not enough are going through this but it’s a start.  Most say they operate for the benefit of shareholders but they cannot deny the reality of massive remuneration for their efforts.  What they are ignoring is the individual cost to their loved ones of these efforts.

Should we look up to the billionaires who sacrifice the wellbeing of others they say they love to chase the dollar?  Are these the paragons of our society?

People are trying to maintain or establish a work/life balance.  (There are several articles at SafetyAtWorkBlog that report on this movement.)  But the reality is that to achieve a work/life balance, one must be prepared to sacrifice income.  This may involve the necessity of achieving a certain stage in one’s career that is not the top, but still a position of value in the company and, equally important, of value to one’s family and even one’s own psychological well-being.  If one’s colleagues fail to understand this decision, the workplace culture is faulty, and probably irreparable.

If the ultimate ideal is to have a happy, functional, and sustainable community, one must examine one’s own motivations, and one’s own personal priorities.  Everyone must consider whether we want to emulate those who sacrifice their family’s welfare for money or whether we support those who rebut the “glory of the high-achiever” and emulate those who love their family enough to spend time with them through their career.  Maintenance is easier than repair in life as in safety management.

Kevin Jones