The occupational context of burnout is largely missed in this new book about exhaustion

Burnout continues to have its moment in the sun. It is the cover story of the February 2024 edition of Psychology Today and is a major theme in a new book about exhaustion. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) declaration of burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” is downplayed or ignored in both publications.

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The fluctuating grey zone of compliance

The occupational health and safety (OHS) profession operates within the legislative context of “so far as is reasonably practicable“, that band of compliance, that non-prescriptive, performance-based flexibility offered to employers to encourage them to provide safe and healthy workplaces. It could be said that OHS was easier forty years ago because the compliance band was thinner, and in some cases, compliance was determined by specialist OHS inspectors on the day of the visit.

Today, that compliance band fluctuates and can be affected by community values and expectations, as shown in a recent discussion about sexual harassment at Australia’s Fair Work Commission.

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Don’t be a slouch on workstation ergonomics

Office ergonomics is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented areas of occupational health and safety (OHS). The issue of posture was discussed in an article in the New Yorker on April 15, 2024, based on a new book – “Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America” by Beth Linker. Rebecca Mead writes that Linker analyses a time when:

“… at the onset of the twentieth century the United States became gripped by what she characterizes as a poor-posture epidemic: a widespread social contagion of slumping that could, it was feared, have deleterious effects not just upon individual health but also upon the body politic. Sitting up straight would help remedy all kinds of failings, physical and moral, and Linker traces the history of this concern: from the exchanges of nineteenth-century scientists, who first identified the possible ancestral causes of contemporary back pain, to the late-twentieth-century popularity of the Alexander Technique, Pilates, and hatha yoga.”

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Is Business really a punching bag?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) cannot afford to be anti-business. No business = no jobs = no need for OHS. And business groups should not be anti-OHS, yet it often feels that they are. A recent opinion piece by Bran Black of the Business Council of Australia argues that the success of businesses in Australia is central the economy. This is typical of the type of articles that appear in the business-friendly media as part of “soft” lobbying of the federal government prior to the May Budget.

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A good working-from-home book… finally

One of the most appealing little occupational health and safety (OHS) crossed my desk the other day. It is a small, cheap book called “Work Well From Home – Staying Effective in the Age of Remote and Hybrid Working“. Although this updated edition was published in 2023, its appeal is that it is a reissue from 2005 when the advice is largely pre-COVID, pre-broadband service, pre-Zoom, and pre- lots of issues that now seem to complicate working from home.

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An economics perspective on overwork

As Ingrid Robeyns’ Limitarianism book hits the Australian bookshops, an earlier examination of the role of excessive profits of “affluenza” from 2005 is worth considering. How does this relate to occupational health and safety (OHS)? The prevention of harm and the reduction of risk are determined by employers deciding on what they are prepared to spend on their workers’ safety, health, and welfare. Employers are looking desperately for effective ways to meet their new psychosocial harm prevention duties. Economists identified strategies in 2005.

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OHS needs to create discomfort

Occupational health and safety (OHS) decision-making by employers is dominated by reasonably practicable safety and health decisions. OHS advice is similarly dominated, leading to an industry that is cowed by the need for job security and tenure. OHS teaching in tertiary institutions is also influenced, if not dominated, by what is seen as (right-wing) “business realities”.

OHS is a small part of the university curriculum. In some universities, OHS education is missing entirely. The OHS discipline is not seen as important or marketable or an important source of revenue. A new book about universities in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s may help us understand the reasons for this.

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