Assessing the best places to work

On April 27 2022, a leading Australian business newspaper, the Australian Financial Review (AFR), included a supplement called the “Best Places to Work” (paywalled). I purchased a hard copy (yes, they are still available) to look for occupational health and safety (OHS) mentions.

“Best” is hard to define. It could mean safest, it could mean best paid, it could mean friendliest. Because the supplementary allocates awards for the best places to work, the judging consultants, Inventium, included its criteria. You can already guess some of the focus of the awards as Inventium is described as “Australia’s leading behavioural science consultancy”. The assessment of the applicants involves:

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OHS record restated, but employers omitted

The WorkSafe Awards night for 2021 was postponed a couple of times from its traditional date in Workplace Health and Safety Month, October. The April 21, 2022, event held the potential for a political statement, given that 2022 is an election year for Victoria, and the event was held one week before International Workers Memorial Day. No such luck. We may have to wait for October 2022, a month before the November election.

The Minister for Workplace Safety, Ingrid Stitt, could not attend, but Bronwyn Halfpenny, the Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Safety, did. Halfpenny is very active in occupational health and safety (OHS) and the government’s working group of bereaved families, but her speech at the awards event reiterated the government’s OHS reforms. Like other members of the government, she gives a great deal of significance to Industrial Manslaughter changes. These changes have generated fear at senior management levels but little difference in employers’ commitment to improving workplace safety and health. A big stick is pointless unless it is used and used as intended.

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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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Over-emphasising the COVID pandemic

Everyone has struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have died. We have to continue to make many allowances for businesses and people due to the disruption, but some are using the pandemic as an excuse for not doing something. Occupational health and safety (OHS) inactivity is being blamed on COVID-19 in some instances, masking or skewing people’s approach to workplace health and safety more generally.

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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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Venus and Mars = HR and OHS but doesn’t have to

Twenty years ago, John Gray published a bestseller that discussed the binary split between Men and Women, a division that was allowed to reflect humanity’s biology and social constructs until very recently.  Since the publication of “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus”, our understanding of gender has almost been revolutionised from the reality of two sexes and genders to a spectrum of varieties, but our institutions and disciplines have not. Our socioeconomic structures are not so flexible, and it may take many decades to reach a consensus on sex and gender, if not equality. 

Workplace relations is similarly slow to adapt to change mainly because it fails to have its own structure, instead piggybacking on business activity.  Business has developed primarily from the male perspective to benefit men much more than women directly.  Business reflects the gender roles of men and women both in job activities and power.  The workplace relations subsets of Human Resources (HR) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) also reflect these binary practices and perhaps have the strongest long-term potential on the future of work.

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