Presenteeism in the new world of work

Presenteeism has largely been analysed through the principles and managed through the actions of the Human Resources profession. The COVID19 pandemic has changed the presenteeism conversation. There seems to be more enforcement of occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations on employees to not present a hazard to their work colleagues and customers and, therefore, to remain home.

On May 5 2021, in Darwin, the Australian Labor Party’s Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Tony Burke, spoke about presenteeism at a Transport Workers Union meeting. He said that the COVID19 pandemic showed that “a third of the workforce in Australia didn’t have sick leave” and:

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Mental Health Crisis? What Crisis?

On April 16 2021, the Guardian newspaper included letters from two clinical psychologists (paywalled) that contradict each other on the reality of COVID-19-related mental health. Dr Lucy Johnstone wrote that it was essential that society builds itself to be better post-COVID-19 and that:

“The “mental health pandemic” trope simply does not fit the evidence. Yes, some people have suffered greatly, but the overall picture is of a population that is largely resilient, although understandably bored, lonely and frustrated at times.”

and

“It should surprise no one that people with more to be depressed and anxious about are feeling more depressed and anxious. Reframing understandable responses to difficult life circumstances as “mental illness” plays into professional interests and political denial.”

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OHS is “… more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) may not be a common subject in the mainstream media but there is plenty of political discussion on the topic in Australia’s Parliament.

The current (conservative) federal government seems very slow to accept and respond to recommendations from official inquiries that it sees as a secondary political priority, such as sexual harassment and workplace health and safety. The hearings of the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee on March 24 2021, were, as usual, enlightening.

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Change in the air on ventilation

One of Edward O’Donoghue’s recent Motion supporters in Victoria’s Parliament was Georgie Crozier, the Liberal Opposition’s Shadow Health Minister. In her speech in support of the Motion, she mentioned ventilation:

“I have been asking for the audits of what has occurred in hotel quarantine under the new structure that the government put in after that catastrophic failure of last year. They said, ‘The system’s fixed; everything is fine. We’ve got processes in place and it’s safe’. Well, it is not safe. I have been wanting to see those ventilation audits, see those safety audits, look at the issues that are arising here, because the other states are not having the same degree of breaches and problems and terrible consequences that we are in Victoria. So something is going wrong; something is going terribly wrong. It is the Andrews government that has to take responsibility for this. It is an absolute outrage that they continue to not take responsibility for this.”

Hansard, Page 24

Until recently, Australia was reluctant to accept the spread of COVID19 by air. The focus was on droplets and the cleanliness of surfaces. An aerosolised coronavirus’s risk was, until very late last year, a fringe risk – one not substantiated by evidence.

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Everyone wants to see consequences

In discussing the current changing power structures in Australian politics, journalist Annabel Crabbe wrote:

“The driving element of the new power is this: Actions that previously did not carry consequences are now carrying consequences. Behaviour that was once tacitly acceptable in the elaborate and bespoke workplace that is Parliament House is now — with the benefit of sunlight — recognised as unacceptable.”

On March 24 2021, lawyer Alena Titterton explained what underpins the calls for Industrial Manslaughter laws as:

“Everyone wants to see consequences.”

In many social policy and political areas, Australia is seeing a change in “the social will” to fill the current void in political will. This is a useful perspective through which to view recent Industrial Manslaughter campaigns.

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Playing the man and not the hazard

People like Ken Phillips continue to pursue Premier Daniel Andrews and others for alleged breaches of occupational health and safety (OHS) laws over COVID19-related deaths stemming from failures in Victoria’s hotel quarantine program. On March 17 2021, the pressure to hold the Premier to account increased in the Victorian Parliament, largely under the guise of OHS duties.

On March 17, 2021, the following motion was put to the Legislative Council by the Liberal Party’s Shadow Attorney General, Edward O’Donoghue:

“… that this House calls on the Minister for Workplace Safety, the Hon Ingrid Stitt MLC, to exercise her power, confirmed in section 7(1)(a) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, to direct WorkSafe Victoria to —
(1) conduct an urgent investigation into all occupational health and safety risks and corresponding responsibilities for duty holders within the Hotel Quarantine Program managed by COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria and its predecessors with responsibility for hotel quarantine;
(2) ensure the report includes details of the health and safety risks and corresponding responsibilities for duty holders;
(3) complete the inquiry and present a Report to the Minister for Workplace Safety by 31 May 2021; and
(4) cause the Report to be tabled in the Council on the next sitting day after it has been received from WorkSafe Victoria.”

Hansard, pages 23-24
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Norms and culture continue to impede change in Australia’s transport sector

Australia’s heavy vehicle transport industry has been involved in arguing about workplace health and safety for decades. It is also one of those issues that have been largely dominated by anecdotal evidence, as shown by the recent Australian Senate Committee hearings into the “Importance of a viable, safe, sustainable and efficient road transport industry“, much to the detriment of the occupational health and safety (OHS) of the drivers, the public safety of other road users and the families of those who die in road incidents.

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