The retention of leave indicates a broken business

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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

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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

BHP, swine flu and leave entitlements

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Many OHS professionals and business gurus state that safety leadership must come from the top of the corporate tree.  BHP Billiton received some rare positive press on 16 June 2009 concerning its OHS policies.

According to Mark Hawthorne, BHP CEO Marius Kloppers has revealed he is battling “pig flu”, in his words.  This seems to have generated a flurry of OHS activity.  Sadly the best OHS practice was not mentioned, which would be to send the infected CEO home.

Hawthorne’s article identifies several BHP swine flu actions:

  • non-essential trips have been cancelled;
  • executives who must fly are being provided with Tamiflu;
  • cleaning shifts have been increased;
  • telephones, keyboards, rest rooms and public areas are being disinfected more regularly; and
  • bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitisers have appeared.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is seeking clarification from BHP Billiton on a number of points.

It is hoped that these measures were not generated only by the CEO comments but were already in place, particularly, following previous incidents with SARS and even avian influenza.

Any measures should be supported by staff consultation that involves more than a notice on the board or an email in the intranet.  Many of these measures generate as many questions as they hope to answer and there should be information sessions for those who wish more detail.

Indeed one of the basic employment issues that always comes up in discussions about pandemics is leave entitlements.  The importance of brainstorming pandemic planning can be illustrated by an article in The Australian, also on 16 June 2009.  The ACTU believes that unpaid leave should not be applied if a worker needs to be absent from work due to influenza, even if the worker themselves are not ill.

The ACTU has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that the following motion was passed at last week’s ACTU Congress

that Federal and State governments should bring together peak union and employer groups to establish guidelines for handling the pandemic. These would:

  • ensure workers and their families are not financially disadvantaged by the outbreak;
  • provide employers with useful information and procedures to deal with any suspected cases of swine flu in the workplace;
  • ensure persons who are in isolation as a consequence of swine flu are not discriminated against or disadvantaged in their employment; and,
  • educate the community about the disease to stop misinformation, panic and help in the overall strategy to slow down the spread of the disease during the winter months.

One of the criticisms that SafetyAtWorkBlog has expressed about many influenza advice sites is that control of the hazard at work is not being seen in the context of occupational health and safety.  This was the case with www.fluthreat.com.

Sadly, influenza information from OHS regulators is of dubious value and application, in many instances, and the regulators have not been promoting their advice.  Very little OHS traction has been gained on the pandemic, even when the unions make the point to the media, as the ACTU did with The Australian newspaper.  The Australian’s article did not mention the following, and sensible, ACTU advice:

“Employers owe a duty of care to workers to provide healthy and safe workplaces as far as reasonably forseeable(sic) [and] the swine flu outbreak has been highly publicised and is reasonably forseeable.”

Let’s hope that the BHP Billiton control measures are part of an integrated OHS/pandemic plan and not a reflex action to please the boss.

Kevin Jones

OHS context of leave entitlements

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Family-friendly work initiatives always get increased attention around International Women’s Day.  This is a shame as work/life balance is not gender specific, however the dominant Western family structures make the application of the concept relative to gender.  As long as the matter is perceived as a “women’s issue”, it will struggle for attention in a basically patriarchal society.

Family-friendly work structures are predominantly associated with hours of work and leave entitlements.  These don’t seem to be OHS matters as they are mostly handled through HR or the pay department however there is a link and it is a link that work/life and work/family advocates may use as a strong argument for their cause.

Leave is a worker entitlement for several reasons:

  • Situations may occur where the employee is required to stay home to look after an ill relative;
  • The employee may stay home as they are too sick to work; and
  • The employee may feel they need time away from work to rebalance their lives.

The second point has an OHS relevance because going to work while sick may introduce a hazard to your work colleagues – presenteeism.  In many jurisdictions it is a breach of an employee’s OHS legislative obligations to not generate hazards for their work colleagues or members of the public while at work.

The third point relates to an individual’s management of stress and/or fatigue.

In Australia, some workplaces allow for “doona days” (or for those in the Northern hemisphere’s winter at the moment “duvet days”).  These are days where a workplace and the employee would benefit psychologically from some time-out in order to “reboot”.

It may also be a valid fatigue management mechanism where long hours have been worked to the extent where attending the workplace may present hazards to others, or to themselves by feeling impaired, or have the employee working well below the appropriate level of attentiveness for the job to be properly done.

Leave entitlements, to some extent, form part of the employer’s legislative obligations to have a safe and healthy work environment.  But they also support the worker’s obligations to look after themselves and not present hazards to others.

The OHS element of leave entitlements should be emphasized when discussions of family-friendly workplaces occur.  Not only does it legitimately raise the profile of OHS in business planning, it can add some moral weight to an issue that can get bogged down in industrial relations.

Some readers may want to check out recent presentations to the US Senate in early-March 2009, by various people on the issue of family-friendly work structure.  These include

Eileen Appelbaum, Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University,

Dr Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund,

Rebia Mixon Clay, a home health care worker who cares for her brother in Chicago. (Rebia’s video is below)

Kevin Jones

Managing Safety After A Vacation

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On 4 January 2009, the Sunday Age contained a curious article based around some quotes from Eric Windholz, acting executive director of WorkSafe Victoria. The article reports Eric as saying that when workers return to work after a holiday break they can be careless. 

“People come back, they’ve taken their mind off the job, they’ve had a well-earned holiday and sometimes it takes them a little while to do the basics of making sure they’re working safe….. Recommissioning their equipment, starting plant, starting at construction sites again, people may not have their minds on the job and they get hurt.”

WorkSafe has advised SafetyAtWorkBlog (and provided the original media statement) that

Continue reading “Managing Safety After A Vacation”