Non-military safety lessons from the latest Royal Commission (open access)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an episode of The Signal on April 21, 2021, which discussed the complexity of the culture of Australia’s military, and I strongly recommend you listen to it. It does make some points about culture worth contemplating in the context of one’s own workplace and profession.

The most useful point was that an established institution cannot have a uniform culture that meets the expectations of all relevant stakeholders. Generations take their culture with them. So those who started in the military in the 1980s and 1990s (and later) will bring the values and lessons of that time into their maturity and when they move into senior and leadership positions – positions that are intended to both preserve and progress the organisation’s culture. This will result in conflict between the expectations of new recruits and the realities of the established military executives. Not open revolt, but a dissatisfaction that may or may not result in leaving the organisation.

The topic used by The Signal to illustrate the extremes of the defence force members and stakeholders was mental health.

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International perspective on bullying and harassment

In April 2021 the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment conducted its 2002 conference online. The conference was enlightening for its inclusivity.

Many Western countries categorise work-related mental health as if they have minimal overlap. Workplace bullying is often seen as its own discipline with its own guidances, analyses and supporting industries. This can be convenient and has evolved from a reactive and often shallow response from Government.

This structure was acknowledged at the conference but many of the presentations ignored it and spoke about worker health, safety and welfare in the broadest terms.

The conference also balanced detailed local research with broad global contexts. This is the first of a series of articles based on presentations at the conference

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Now there is too much mental health information, and it’s like toothpaste

Australia is experiencing a boom in occupational health and safety (OHS) information about work-related psychological harm, including sexual harassment at work. This level of information is long overdue, but a consequence of this “boom” is that employers can be very confused about which information to use and which source they should trust or even what relates to their specific circumstances, especially after years of denying there is a problem.

Putting on my consultant hat, I would advise any State-based organisation to comply with the OHS guidances issued by that State’s OHS regulator. If a national company, look towards the guidance of Comcare or Safe Work Australia for the national perspective. The challenge is greater for companies that operate in multiple States, but these have been rumoured to be less than 10% of Australian businesses. If multi-State, they should be big enough to have the resources for OHS compliance.

However, some State-based mental initiatives have evolved into a national platform.

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Business voices add weight to OHS change

On February 27 2012, The Australian reprinted/tweaked a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on Burnout. A significant feature of the article is the acknowledgement of organisational factors as contributing to burnout and other workplace mental health hazards. The situation seems to have changed as these types of acknowledgements were harder to draw out of psychological health experts when SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke to some in 2019.

However, there are also clear parallels to Australian research into job stressors that could have helped HBR’s author Dave Lievens add weight to the decades-long research of Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach.

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Workplace wellbeing, mental health and cake

Recently Australians Jason van Schie and Joelle Mitchell released a podcast series called Psych Health and Safety focussing on psychological health and health promotion at work. Recently Carlo Caponecchia spoke on the podcast about mental health at work and the soon-to-be-released International Standard 45003 for managing psychosocial risks at work, a “child” of ISO45001 the occupational health and safety (OHS) management standard.

Caponecchia was asked to outline the statistics for workplace mental health in Australia. He stated that the official figures are that 9% of workers compensation claims related to mental health at work and that claims for this type of injury have increased substantially since the year 2000. However, he also added a caveat to those figures, a caveat that should apply to all official OHS statistics:

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Interesting? Yeah. Useful? Nah.

The last six months have seen a spate of marketing surveys about the impact of COVID19 on workplaces as well as the secondary consequences, such as mental health. On 18 January 2021, The Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an article based on one of these types of surveys conducted by the “work management platform Asana” which claimed:

“Almost three-quarters of Australians suffered burnout last year and the average office worker’s overtime nearly doubled from 236 hours in 2019 to 436 hours, a global study of more than 13,000 office workers reveals.”

This is inaccurate.

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Selling remediation as prevention is dishonest

Regular readers of, and subscribers to, this blog know that I am a strong advocate for the prevention of suicides, especially those related to work. Mental illness is not always connected to suicides but there is often a correlation between, mental stress, self-harm, suicide ideation and suicides. as such it is useful to keep an eye on suicide statistics, particularly in industries or times of great stress.

In early December 2020, Victoria’s Minister for Mental Health, James Merlino, addressed the Parliamentary Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) to discuss the 2020-21 Budget Estimates. At that time, Merlino made some clear statements about the rates of suicides, which are useful to remember when evaluating suicide and mental illness prevention strategies like those mentioned in the Productivity Commission’s recent inquiry into Mental Health.

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