Workplace depression approaches are too narrow

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Further to other SafetyAtWorkBlog posts concerning Ms Paula Wriedt’s sacking, Ms Wriedt has issued a statement expressing her disappointment at Premier David Bartlett’s decision.

One comment from a newspaper columnist struck me as odd but worthy of note.  The columnist said that Paula Wriedt’s public statements have followed the line pushed by beyondblue, a depression support and lobby group.  I have had no dealings with beyondblue but note that newspaper articles often end with “For further information on depression contact…..” similarly television news reports.

beyondblue has been a spectacular success in self-promotion and, hopefully, increasing awareness of depression.  In the context of the Premier’s decision on Paula Wriedt, David Bartlett contacted the chair of beyondblue (and former Victorian Premier) Jeff Kennett, prior to his decision.  The Weekend Australian newspaper reported

“I have not taken this decision lightly; in fact, decisions don’t come any tougher than this,” Mr Bartlett said. He received support from former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, the chairman of depression support group Beyondblue.

After speaking to Mr Bartlett, Mr Kennett told The Weekend Australian he believed the decision was a very tough call for the Premier, but added: “When you balance up all his responsibilities, the correct one. It might just be what Paula needs to start rebuilding her health.  That is, she doesn’t have other ministerial responsibilities now and she can now focus more directly on her recovery.”

beyondblue does admirable work and has acheived much but it is dominating the discussions on psychosocial issues in the workplace.  It is difficult for other groups to raise matters that are just as relevant to the workplace, if not more so, such as occupational violence, stress, dignity at work, and so on.

We are not yet clear on all the circumstances of Paula Wriedt’s suicide attempt, and we may never know.  We do not know if work stresses or private stresses caused her self-harm but that is not necessarily the point.  Occupational health and safety long ago left the confines of the workplace and controlling workplace hazards, particularly psychosocial issues, needs a bigger canvas.  There must be an approach that assists the individual in work and non-work contexts. 

Some countries and States are trying this through work/life balance initiatives but the approaches are usually skewed to focus on interventions on the individual rather than looking at the social structures.  In OHS we look at the “system of work” to determine the most effective interventions.  To affect true and lasting change, we must apply the “system of living”.  We must be careful not to over-emphasise the individual and be distracted from the cultural initiatives.

Politician who attempted suicide is “sacked”

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In early August 2008, Paula Wriedt, Tasmanian MP, tried to commit suicide.  Six weeks later the Tasmanian Premier has sacked her from Cabinet, according to an ABC report.

Premier David Bartlett denies this is a sacking, more a “withdrawal of commission”.  He says it is for the good of the government and for the good of Ms Wriedt.

Ms Wriedt was asked to resign her Cabinet position but the Premier says she was “not in a position to make such a decision”.

An audio interview with the Premier put to him that his decision was “despicable” and “reflects the way the state deals with people with mental health problems”.

Ms Wriedt’s suicide attempt had already raised discussion on the workplace issues of stress, compensation, workloads and mental health.  The listener’s question in the audio interview will reflect the majority of the community’s response to the Premier’s decision and Premier Bartlett will have a difficult time explaining how his decision was for Ms Wriedt’s benefit.

Ms Wriedt’s current situation and future career decisions will provide an interesting illustration on how the public service and Tasmanian politics manages an employee with mental health issues, particularly when, on OHS matters, the public service should be exemplars.

Another Australian politician attempts suicide

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Over the last few days Australian media has been covering the hospitalisation of Tasmanian MP, Paula Wriedt.  It has become apparent that Ms Wreidt attempted suicide as a result of a combination of work and family pressures.

Being a politician is a difficult job and, as with any job, pressure can become excessive.  This was seen over the last few years in New South Wales with the reported suicide attempt of John Brogden in August 2005 and his retirement due to ill-health, and the resignation of Andrew Tink in March 2006 due to a stress-related illness.

In 2005, Australian politician Andrew Bartlett wrote about John Brogden, the pressures of stress in politics and how the media reports on politicians.

In 2002 a small sample survey into the role of work factors in suicide was undertaken in

 Melbourne by the Urban Ministry Network.  The authors analysed 109 suicide cases from the coronial database between 1989 and 2000.

The main factors in the suicides were

  • Work Stress (21%)
  • Unspecified work problems (19%)
  • An argument or disagreement with a work colleague or boss (13%)
  • Fear of retrenchment (12%)

According to the report, a work injury or work-related mental illness had an impact on the person’s suicide in 31% of the cases.

These figures indicate that work-related suicide is an issue of genuine concern and one that should demand further research.

The Victorian State Coroner at the time of the report and a strong advocate for preventive safety, Graeme Johnstone, write in the foreword:

As a society we tend to concentrate on the obvious – in terms of the workplace that means traumatic injuries and deaths.  We understand that by identifying factors in traumatic workplace injuries and deaths we will be better able to prevent some of the deaths and reduce the number of injuries. This also may be true in the area of suicide and it is why this study on work factors in suicide has so much potential.

One of the authors of that study, John Bottomley, is looking for research funding for a second analyse of suicides.  He can be contacted through the website HERE   His research outline is listed at the top of this page.

In 2000 an Australian politician succeeded in killing himself.  The ABC spoke to an expert on the treatment of depression.

A book review of the Bottomley study is available HERE


Paula Wriedt has spoken to the press for the first time since being admitted to hospital.  She thanks her estranged husband, medical staff and family for their help.

Stress and job mobility

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In The Age newspaper for 31 July 2008, James Adonis wrote the article “Eight signs your workplace is crook”.  One of those signs was stressed workers.  He quoted a report by Watson Wyatt where employees listed stress  as a major reason for leaving a job.  Stress did not rank in the employers’ top five reasons for people leaving.

This disconnect illustrates a major misunderstanding about workplace stress by employers and, maybe, employees.  The ultimate control measure for workplace stress is to leave a job and I recommend this to colleagues who do not see it as a viable hazard control option.

The challenge is to make sure that the next job is not, or does not become, a similarly stressful job.

The executive summary of the report says

“Forty-eight percent of organizations say that job-related stress — created by long hours and doing more with less — affects business performance. Although only 5 percent are taking strong action to address it…”

The focus on business performance may reflect the perspective of the report writers but as it is only available for purchase for $US49, I would ask for the report (2007/2008 Staying@Work Report: Building an Effective Health & Productivity Framework) at a library.

Medical research into stress indicators

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Dr Rita Effros spoke to All Things Considered this last weekend about her research into telomeres and cortisol.  In the OHS field this is gibberish until you consider the implications of the research outside of the lab.  According to the UCLA website “cells of persons under chronic stress have shorter telomeres.”  Dr Effros said

“When the body is under stress, it boosts production of cortisol to support a ‘fight or flight’ response. If the hormone remains elevated in the bloodstream for long periods of time, though, it wears down the immune system. We are testing therapeutic ways of enhancing telomerase levels to help the immune system ward off cortisol’s effect. If we’re successful, one day a pill may exist to strengthen the immune system’s ability to weather chronic emotional stress.”

Dr Effros findings could one day reduce the long-term stress experienced by carers of chronically ill family members, soldiers, air traffic controllers, astronauts and people who drive long distances.

Chromosomes (stained blue) end in protective caps called telomeres (stained yellow), which are shorter in persons suffering chronic stress. A new UCLA study suggests cortisol is the culprit behind the telomeres' premature shortening. Copyright: UCLA