The new approach to mental health at work may need a new profession

Managing psychologically healthy and safe workplaces makes me extremely nervous. I don’t think that anyone in Australia is suitably qualified to meet the new occupational health and safety (OHS) regulations and expectations imposed by OHS regulators in response to community demands and needs. Perhaps we need a new category of professional.

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Prohibition on Administrative Controls for psychological health at work

The Australian Institute of Health and Safety (AIHS) and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) annual breakfast physically returned this month after a few years of enforced absence. It kept its traditional structure – speeches from the local OHS regulator WorkSafe Victoria, representatives from HSF and AIHS and a summary of a salary survey report focused on occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals. The presentation that made the expense worthwhile came from one of HSF’s Regional Heads of Practice, Steve Bell, concerning new regulations for psychologically healthy workplaces.

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Assessing the best places to work

On April 27 2022, a leading Australian business newspaper, the Australian Financial Review (AFR), included a supplement called the “Best Places to Work” (paywalled). I purchased a hard copy (yes, they are still available) to look for occupational health and safety (OHS) mentions.

“Best” is hard to define. It could mean safest, it could mean best paid, it could mean friendliest. Because the supplementary allocates awards for the best places to work, the judging consultants, Inventium, included its criteria. You can already guess some of the focus of the awards as Inventium is described as “Australia’s leading behavioural science consultancy”. The assessment of the applicants involves:

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Burnout causes are organisational. Who knew?

This blog has written frequently about “burnout” in workplaces, especially since the condition was defined by the World Health Organisation in 2019. I have seen it used many times as a shortcut, or synonym, for workplace mental health but usually only at the corporate, executive level. Workers have breakdowns, but executives seem to suffer burnout.

Recently a book was published in the United States called “The Burnout Epidemic, or The Risk of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It”, by journalist Jennifer Moss. What is most outstanding about this book is that the recommended fix is organisational. Usually, burnout books from the States focus on the individual worker or executive. This fresh US perspective makes the book essential reading for if the US recognises how to fix burnout and chronic stress, any country can.

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You can lead an opera company to water, but you can’t guarantee it will drink

Recently accusations of bullying have been made by members of Opera Australia. The details are reported in Limelight, but the newspaper article by Nathaneal Cooper is more illustrative of the general workplace mental health challenges of those in the performing arts. Performers are one of the most visible and fragile sectors of insecure and precarious work. Solutions to hazards and clues to strategic improvements might be more evident and practical if the bullying was assessed through the prism (and legislative obligations) of occupational health and safety (OHS) and insecure work.

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Political point-scoring misses the point

Last week the Australian Financial Review (AFR) caused a bit of a political stink by reporting that:

“….Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the share of casual employment was 22.8 per cent in February – 1.3 percentage points lower than in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the economy.
The casualisation rate is 4.8 percentage points below the peak of 27.6 per cent in 2003.”

AFR, April 12 2022 – Albanese’s casual jobs claim is ‘wrong’, according to ABS data

The figures seem accurate but do not tell the whole story. How are employment statistics relevant to occupational health and safety (OHS)? Job insecurity is a significant factor in work-related mental health.

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Why don’t we act on the evidence?

Several years ago, I worked for an organisation that handed out awards for exceptional efforts and achievements. One time the award was given to a worker who had worked in the office for most of the weekend to meet a semi-important deadline. I was horrified as that worker had sacrificed important “downtime” with family friends and his own welfare with no time in lieu. But he was lauded by the boss.

Rewarding those who sacrifice their own health and safety for the apparent good of the company must change as there is increasing evidence that working long hours increases serious health risks. An extensive research project for the World Health Organisation has found:

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