Physical activity, mental health, alcohol consumption and productivity

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The Victorian Government’s workplace health strategy may be “coughing up blood” but health promotion continues.  Last week, Australian health insurer, Medibank Private, released some statistics and cost estimates related to physical inactivity.

According to the media release, physical inactivity costing the Australian economy $13.8 billion a year. The findings are based on research conducted in conjunction with KPMG-Econtech which builds on Medibank’s 2007 research and “captures the healthcare costs, economy wide productivity costs, and the mortality costs of individuals passing away prematurely as a result of physical inactivity.”

Craig Bosworth of Medibank Private says, 

“Most Australians are aware of the benefits of physical activity but this latest round of Medibank research has revealed some alarming effects of physical inactivity. An estimated 16,179 people die prematurely each year due to conditions and diseases attributable to physical inactivity and that is frightening. And whilst the majority of these are from the older population there is also a large number of people dying under 74 years of age due to physical inactivity, particularly in the male population.”

Bosworth goes on to say:

“Like other health risk factors, physical inactivity can have an adverse effect on organisations as well as individuals. Specifically, physical inactivity can impact on employee productivity by causing increased absenteeism and presenteeism, which impose direct economic costs on employers. The Medibank research has found that productivity loss due to physical inactivity equates to 1.8 working days per worker per year.”

Three audio statements on this research are available – physical-inactivity-telephone-grabs-edit

The SuperFriend Industry Funds Forum Mental Health Foundation has also released statistics on mental health in the workplace. The survey also found that 50 per cent of Australians admit to often feeling stressed and a quarter often feel depressed. 

John Mendoza, Chair of SuperFriend’s Mental Health Reference Group, said, “There is increasing evidence of a link between stress in the workplace and mental illness. The cost of workplace stress to Australian business is potentially crippling.” Listen – workplace-mental-health-edit

The Superfriends survey found

StreetWise
StreetWise
  • One in two Australians believe that having a few drinks is a good way to maintain or improve their mental health;
  • 80 per cent of Australians believe watching TV has a positive impact on their mental health;
  • Australians are putting their bodies ahead of their brains, with three-quarters of Australians engaged in activity to maintain or improve their physical health, while only 50 per cent are actively engaging in activity to maintain or improve their mental health.
  • Older Australians are more likely to heed the call ‘use it or lose it’. While 57 per cent of all Australians feel they take good care of their mental health, 68 per cent of those over 50 feel they are looking after themselves emotionally.
  • Australians aged 40 to 49 are the unhappiest and unhealthiest. Those in this age group are more likely to feel stressed and depressed and less likely to look after their physical and mental health.

A good starting point in planning to manage stress is the StressWise publication by WorkSafe Victoria.

For many decades, perhaps centuries, unhappiness at work was countered, to varying degrees, through the consumption of alcohol.  According to the latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index people who drink everyday are the happiest, whereas non-drinkers have a lower sense of wellbeing.

Amanda Hagan of Australian Unity summarises some of the research findings and supports the link between physical activity and positive wellbeing. Listen – australian-unity-wellbeing-index-aap-medianet-edit

WorkHealth – end is nigh after less than one year

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Early in 2008, the Victorian Government sprung a surprise on the OHS and health promotion industries by announcing a world-first initiative – WorkHealth.  This program was to be funded by interest generated from the WorkCover scheme to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years.

WorkHealth loses stakeholder support

Two weeks ago, a well-respected OHS professional advised that key stakeholders in WorkHealth were very cool on the program.  This confirmed previous questions raised in SafetyAtWorkBlog about the promotion, transparency and organisational support for WorkHealth.  The professional stated that others were questioning the placement of WorkHealth in the OHS field rather than in health promotion.

Rumour has existed for some months that WorkHealth is a scheme that has been pushed by a narrow range of OHS and workers compensation advocates.

What made WorkHealth so interesting was that the concept originated from within the workers compensation field with workers compensation money.  At the time, the wisdom of committing such a large amount of money to the initiative was questioned by many in the trade union and business areas.  Why head in this direction when there were established mechanisms to reduce OHS and workers compensation costs?

The global economic problems, it is suspected, would have flowed to the investments of the WorkCover scheme and it would be interesting to know what the revenue allocation to WorkHealth now is calculated at.

OHS/Industrial Relations conflict

In The Age newspaper on 26 October 2008, WorkHealth gained some attention as business groups have now seen the criteria for the health assessments of workers.  David Gregory of the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry described the criteria as a potential “industrial weapon”.  According to the article,

“WorkSafe told The Age the idea of an initial ‘tick test’ screening process had been abandoned, and the proposed $130 million worth of prevention programs are not in the pilot at all.”

As is evident from the quote, it is the pilot scheme that is being rolled out, however it is clear from the comments of David Gregory and the state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Steve Dargavel that industrial relations sensitivities have not been considered.

Gregory makes excellent points that good OHS professionals are already aware of – workplace safety can only succeed when industrial relations implications and conditions are considered before any intervention process.

OHS has broadened to include the hazards of fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, workloads, bullying and other matters that have encroached on health promotion and human resources over the last decade or so.  A worker health program would have been more likely to be accepted through this osmosis rather than a surprise announcement.

Is this the end?

WorkHealth could work if it had been generated as a workplace application of public health programs.  The challenge would have been to legitimise the expenditure in an already cluttered health promotion sector.  How would WorkHealth have achieved this testing regime when business is already assessing its workers for psychological disorders, cholesterol, prostate health, hearing, asthma, and a whole range of modern health issues?  It is unlikely that it could so.

It came down to health assessments in a different context – a context where there had been insufficient groundwork to establish the value of the program to its fundamental stakeholders, the unions and employer groups.  To a much lesser extent, the program was not sufficiently integrated into the WorkSafe authority’s program before the announcement.

Also, the timing has been proven to be wrong.  The global economic problems are beginning to squeeze business’ bottom line.  The calls for workers’ compensation premium relief will increase in the same way that businesses have begun questioning the viability of an emissions trading scheme.  WorkHealth is likely to be one of those program cut, so the government will claim, due to the changing economic climate.  The lessons to be learnt are more wide-ranging than just economics.

Bullying, duty of care and compensation

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The growth of attention to psychosocial hazards in Australia received a considerable boost from a stress survey undertaken by the ACTU some years ago.  During the survey of union-members, it became clear that bullying was a major generator and perpetrator of workplace stress.  The unions went to town on this data and set the agenda for some time in OHS.  Their success was echoed and mirrored in the United Kingdom and Europe. (In fact, Europe seems to be the jurisdiction that has kept the momentum)

The survey and campaign got the attention of regulators and OHS professionals to the presence of, perhaps, the next generation of occupational health and safety activity.

Since that time psychosocial hazards have splintered into sub-groups of stress, occupational violence, workload, fatigue management, shift work, dignity at work and a range of other matters. However bullying persists as the front runner.

As with many elements of OHS, risk management and cultural studies the defence forces provide signposts to future civilian issues. Yesterday the Australian Defence Force agreed to pay ex-gratia payments to family members of defence personnel who had committed suicide as a result of bullying suffered at the hands of their colleagues.  There are many significant signposts from these incidents but one of particular note was that the payments were not made to dependents but to other family members.

According to the ABC radio report by Karen Barlow:

“The suicides date back up to 12 years, when Lance-Corporal Nicholas Shiels killed himself after accidentally shooting his best friend dead during Army training.

Private John Satatas hanged himself at Holsworthy Barracks, in western Sydney, five years ago after being bullied and racially taunted.

Private David Hayward committed suicide four years ago after he was injured and had gone AWOL.” 

The Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was interviewed on this issue, and others, on Radio National on 23 October 2008 and  has referred the matter to a general review of the defence forces. Fitzgibbon acknowledged that “shortcomings in the defence force system” contributed to the situation and could have been better handled after the event.

The day before the media attention the Australian Defence Force released the findings of its annual attitudinal survey of personnel.  The 2007 survey found, according to a media statement:

“… a marked improvement in knowledge of mental health issues as well as members’ assessments of their own mental health. Since 1999, the data also shows an increasing proportion of personnel who believe that unacceptable behaviour is well managed.”

As Australia moves to a national OHS and workers compensation system, or at least a harmonised system, more attention should be given to some of the responses and OHS initiatives in Commonwealth departments as these will be just as influential on OHS law and management as any State initiative.

When managing stress, are safety managers looking at the wrong thing?

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Today is World Mental Health Day and the media, at least in Australia, is inundated with comments and articles on mental health.  This morning, Jeff Kennett, a director of beyondblue, spoke on ABC Radio about the increasing levels of anxiety that people are feeling in these turbulent economic times.  Throughout the 5 minute interview, Kennett never once mentioned stress.  This omission seemed odd as, in the workplace safety field, stress is often seen as the biggest psychosocial hazard faced in the workplace.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spoke with Clare Shann, the senior project manager with beyondblue’s Workplace Program, about the role of stress in the workplace and its relation to mental health.  She clarified that stress is not a medical condition but a potential contributor to developing a mental illness, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

To put the situation into context, there is a fascinating interview with a Darren Dorey of Warrnambool in Victoria.  The 20 minute interview was conducted on  a regional ABC Radio station on 9 October, and describes the personal experience of depression and anxiety that stems, to some extent, from work.

It seems that in trying to manage stress, OHS professionals may be focusing on the wrong element in worker health.  Perhaps what are considered workers compensation claims for stress should be re–categorised as claims for mental illness.  This may result in a better acceptance of the existence of this workplace hazard.

An exclusive interview with Clare Shann can be heard clare_shann_mental_health

Mandatory reporting of stress-related injuries

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An OHS colleague of mine, Col Finnie, has posted a comment to a recent SafetyAtWorkBlog article on depression.  As I work out the technicalities of having Col as a regular contributor to this blog, I felt that his comment warranted a little more prominence.  The original comment can be viewed HERE)

I find the whole issue of what is being done about work stress intriguing. Last time I looked stress claims outstripped manual handling injuries in the UK (if I recall right, that was about a year ago). You’d imagine that trend will also happen here in time.

I wonder if it might be worth considering getting doctors to report to their local OH&S agency when they have evidence that a particular business appears to be the source of an unusual number of stress related patients?

If it’s legitimate for the police or emergency wards to be a source of reports of info on apparent work related physical injuries, why shouldn’t that be legitimate for other types of injuries?

There is no reason for this idea to be considered a “witch-hunt”. I’d consider it an opportunity for a regulator to pitch in on getting a business on-track with how it’s dealing (or not dealing) with managing stress stuff. Clearly, the reporting approach would have to be handled carefully. It’s quite likely it wouldn’t work as a mandatory requirement. But guidance and an info program could be worked up to make sure the complex issue of stress is dealt with sensibly.”