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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“Insecure work is absolutely toxic”

The Victorian Government is trialling the provision of five days of sick, and carers’ leave for casual workers.  This was announced jointly by the Premier Daniel Andrews and the Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt on the Labour Day public holiday, indicating that this is a big reform and one directly related to occupational health and safety (OHS).  But the OHS arguments are not at the fore, regardless of the quote from the Premier that is the headline above.

The OHS context of precarious work has been articulated clearly and over many years by many Australian researchers. The lack of serious action by employers to address the structural causes of physical and psychological risks related to precarity offers a good indication of the values and priorities of business owners and employers. 

Into this void, the Victorian Government has stepped.  Sadly, it is a mini-step that offers more political benefits than tangible change, especially in an election year.

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If the research is clear, why aren’t employers reacting?

Excessive working hours are harmful. This uncomfortable truth was recently spoken by the Harvard Business Review. The changes to prevent this harm is obvious to most of us involved with health and safety but remains uncomfortable to everyone else.

In an article called “The Research is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies, Sarah Green Carmichael posits three reasons for overwork:

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The unmentioned OHS

Occupational health and safety (OHS) people know how to fix most hazards at work but often have very little power and insufficient influence to apply the fix. That is why OHS people need to read the business sections of major newspapers and mainstream media business websites. It is there that the executives and corporate leaders discuss OHS changes, even if they never say “workplace health and safety”. An article in last weekend’s The Guardian provides a good example.

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A good job is also a safe job

At the moment, “The Great Resignation” remains a United States phenomenon, but part of that movement involves a reassessment of one’s job. Is it a good job? Is it meaningful work? Is it a good job now but likely not in the future? I would include my occupational health and safety perspective (OHS) and ask if it is a safe job, but I accept that my perspective is far from universal.

Recently Sarah O’Connor wrote in the Financial Times about the importance of having a decent boss. She wrote that

“Economists are increasingly of the opinion that the quality of jobs matter as much as their quantity”

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The OHS benefits of “work to rule”

In May 2020, “work to rule” was touched on in a long article about the future of work. “Work To Rule” is a phrase that is rarely heard now, as the industrial relations (IR) conversation has changed, but it is more relevant than ever.

The industrial relations context for working to the rules is illustrated in this short article. Still, work to rule can have occupational health and safety (OHS) benefits, especially psychosocial health and the current mot du jour, The Great Resignation/Rebalance.

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