Last week, I wrote about the misrepresentation of mental health in a common graphic about the “mental health spectrum”. If only I had had time to read the Productivity Commission’s report into its inquiry on mental health. On page 10 is this image which provides a more accurate context for mental health in Australia.
David Michaels devoted a whole chapter to sport-related concussions and brain damage in his 2020 book “The Triumph of Doubt“. He wrote about how the National Football League obfuscated over the appearance of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and how the the NFL downplayed the injury’s significance by referring to repeated head trauma as Mild Trauma Brain Injury.
The Australian experience is different and this was examined recently in an excellent edition of the ABC radio program, The Ticket. Significantly several interviewees mentioned the injuries in relation to occupational health and safety (OHS) and workers compensation.
Occupational health and safety (OHS) is not famous for its certainty. The days of prescriptive compliance to OHS laws are, probably, never to return. But the flexibility offered by modern OHS laws and the pervasiveness of “reasonably practicable” has complicated the management of workplace health safety by increasing that uncertainty.
The attention being given to workplace mental health, over the last 20 years and since work-related stress was identified as a major problem, has highlighted this flexibility/uncertainty. However, some certainty on workplace mental health is accessible if one is prepared to challenge the dominant workplace wellness paradigms.
This article is about SafeWorkNSW’s recently released Draft Code of Practice for Managing the Risks to Psychological Health, but it is not going to focus on the Code. Instead the focus will be on the supplementary Explanatory Paper because this presents the rationale for the Code’s contents and, in many ways, is a more useful tool for occupational health and safety (OHS) discussions. However, just as the Code has structural and legislative limitations as part of its Purpose, the Explanatory Paper is a support document for submissions on the Draft Code and therefore has its own limitations.
Michael Tooma is probably the most prominent occupational health and safety (OHS) lawyer in Australia. His latest book is, a little pretentiously, called “Michael Tooma on Mental Health“, but it fits with the series of OHS-related publications he has written for Wolters Kluwer. Unusually for a lawyer, there are only two chapters that specifically discuss legislative obligations, and, in many ways, these are the least interesting.
Positive Mental Health
In the Introduction, Tooma goes out of his way to stress the positive benefits of work. He is critical of the current OHS approach to workplace stress writing that we seek a “Goldilocks” application of perfection when this is really subjectively determined by each worker. Tooma challenges this in a major way through the 2012 study by Keller and others:
On May 15 2020, the Australian Government released a National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. Mental Health has been on Prime Minister Morrison’s agenda since his election a year ago and the mental health sector is not going to be starved of government funds during his tenure.
Mental ill-health has been talked about throughout the current COVID19 Pandemic and has been forecast to increase due to the economic disruption and the requirements for social isolation. To some extent, the low numbers of COVID19 deaths in Australia has allowed it a “luxury” of addressing mental health, but some of the justifications seem not as strong as claimed and the National Mental Health Plan omits any consideration of occupational health and safety (OHS) other than for those in the health industry; the so-called “frontline workers”.
On May 11 2020, the Australian Financial Review’s back page ran an article (paywalled)about how “corporates” are becoming aware of mental health risks due to the COVID19 disruption. It is a good article but also one that reveals the dominant misunderstanding about mental health at work and how to prevent it.