Annual holidays get a TV makeover

Regardless of concerns over the veracity of data, Tourism Australia’s “No Leave, No Life” campaign is continuing to develop its media presence.

The Seven Network announced this week that “No Leave, No Life” will form the basis of a television program to be broadcast from 5 December 2009.  As is the nature of TV shows, when a new successful format is found, it can travel around the world. So, be warned.

The rationale of the “No Leave, No Life” tourism campaign is that employees hold on to their annual leave entitlements and amass many weeks’ leave.  The employer groups have supported this campaign, principally, because this reduces the salary reserves each company must carry to cover the entitlements.Individually, employees can convince themselves that they are indispensable.  The risk, from the workplace safety perspective, is that the individual is not accessing the mental health and stress relief that can come from being away from a workplace for several weeks.

Having no break from work mode can unbalance one’s life and put considerable strain on personal and family relationships.  Just like adequate sleep can have productivity benefits, so can taking annual leave on a regular basis

There is also the organisational benefit that can come from breaking the routine.  Just as individuals may come to believe they are indispensable, so an organisation can come to rely too heavily on individuals.  A healthy corporate system should be able to cope with the absence of any staff member or executive for a short period of time (the period of annual leave).

Business continuity would dictate that a business can continue without key people permanently.  Coping without these people for a short period each year can be considered a trial run of continuity.

In relation to the new television program the Seven Network advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that each episode is structured around the removal of a worker who has a large amount of annual leave from their workplace for a holiday within Australia (hence the Tourism Australia support).  The viewer appeal, other than watching someone else have a good time, is that a comedian is used to fill the role of the holidaying staff members.  The show is likely to illustrate several points – no one is indispensable, a regular holiday is an important individual activity, and, although not indispensable, the employee and their effort is valued by the organisation.

The show will follow people from these occupations:

  • a paediatric nurse in a cardiac ward;
  • a sales manager in a brewery
  • an ambulance paramedic; and
  • a charity events manager.

The OHS role and benefits of regular leave are not as overt in the program as they could be but that is not he purpose of the program.  It is clearly a program that would not have existed without the Tourism Australia campaign.  It has been designed to encourage Australians to take holidays and to holiday within Australia.

It is hoped that if and when people return to work refreshed they may realise how important regular leave is to their own wellbeing and mental health but having stress management or career burnout as a motivation for the employees themselves to take leave would have been more instructional.

Of course, it should be pointed out that businesses are doing themselves no good by allowing for the accumulation of excessive leave in the first place.  In fact, it could be argued that by not enforcing the taking of leave the companies are increasing the stress of their employees and contributing to the social dysfunction that can result from such a imbalance.

Kevin Jones

Unpaid overtime is the new danger money

In Australia there is increasing pressure to work more hours than what one is paid for. Many different organisations use this fact to push for various improved benefits, in many circumstances the statistics are used in support of wage improvements.

But working beyond contracted hours will certainly affect one’s work/life balance as there are only so many hours in the day and if work dominates one’s life, family time or rest will be sacrificed. The imbalance leads to a range of negative psychological and social actions. An article in Wikipedia on working time summarises this.

“In contrast, a work week that is too long will result in more material goods at the cost of stress-related health problems as well as a “drought of leisure.”  Furthermore, children are likely to receive less attention from busy parents, and childrearing is likely to be subjectively worse.  The exact ways in which long work weeks affect culture, public health, and education are debated.”

Australia has yet to have the debate on the matter of working hours that has been seen in Europe and England but the issue exists very much in Australia, although it has yet to gain any traction.

According to a media report by the Australian Council of Trade Unions a new research report by the Australia Institute

“… found that each year, the average full-time Australian worker does 266.6 hours of unpaid overtime, or an extra six-and-a-half working weeks…. The think tank estimates that through unpaid overtime, workers are forgoing a total of $72.2 billion in wages or 6% of GDP.”

The Australian Institute report found the following

  • Forty-five per cent of all Australian workers, and more than half of all full-time employees, work more hours than they are paid for during a typical workday.
  • Unpaid overtime is more common among people who work a ‘standard’ business workday (that is, not shift work) and among white-collar workers.
  • Workplace culture is a dominant contributing factor, with 44 per cent of people who work unpaid overtime saying that it is ‘compulsory’ or ‘expected’ and another 43 per cent saying that it is ‘not expected, but also not discouraged’.
  • Across the workforce, the average employee works 49 minutes unpaid during a typical workday.
  • Full-time employees work 70 minutes of unpaid overtime on average, while parttime employees work 23 minutes.
  • Men work more unpaid overtime than women (63 minutes versus 36 minutes a day). Men with young children work a great deal more than women with young children (71 minutes compared with 30 minutes).
  • Unpaid overtime increases with income: people in low-income households work an average of 28 minutes of unpaid overtime a day compared with 61 minutes for people in high-income households.
  • When asked what would happen if they didn’t work unpaid overtime, most say that ‘the work wouldn’t get done’, suggesting that the demands placed on employees are too much for many people.
  • A majority of survey respondents who work additional hours said that if they didn’t work overtime they would spend more time with family, and many said that they would do more exercise.

The report clearly states that allowing “unpaid overtime” has a strong cost in social and individual health but there is an OHS perspective that over gets overlooked due to public health and industrial relations dominating the issue.

In a media statement from October 2009, as an example, Deloittes quoted some scientists, in support of a anti-sleep device, on statistics that have been bandied around for some time:

“…scientists equate fatigue to blood-alcohol levels: if a person has been awake for 18 hours, it’s the equivalent of having a .05 level of alcohol in their body; if they have been awake for 21 hours, it’s equivalent to a.08 level.”

There are several further examples on negative health impacts in the Australia Institute report.

It can be strongly argued that by allowing, or expecting, “unpaid overtime”, employers may be encouraging workers to travel home while impaired and that employers are creating a work/life imbalance by requiring “unpaid overtime”.   Certainly it could be argued that even during unpaid overtime, the cognitive function of the employee is less than expected, or even have the worker unfit for work.

Arguing about unpaid overtime clearly makes the debate one of money not safety or wellness or the social contract, and this is the argument’s inherent weakness.

Arguing for compensation for “unpaid overtime” is arguing for “danger money” – how much money will a worker accept in order to keep working into the unhealthy and dangerous hours beyond their regular contracted hours?  This type of argument disappeared almost twenty years ago in Australia when the Australian awards system was reformed to remove allowances in relation to working at heights, picking up roadkill, or working in excessive heat.   It was agreed that “danger money” was inappropriate and that OHS principles demanded the risks involved with these tasks be reduced rather than “paying workers” to place themselves at risk.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence, in his media statement in support of Go Home on Time Day, and The Australia Institute in its media statement on its report both underplay a major point in the debate on working hours when they argue in economic terms.  Lawrence says

“If the work demands are too much to complete in a normal working day, then employees should be paid for their extra hours, or their employer must hire more staff.”

The institute mentions wellness in passing but emphasises in its media release

“..the 2.14 billion hours of unpaid overtime worked per year is a $72 billion gift to employers and means that 6% of our economy depends on free labour.”

Employing more staff is preferable but removing the culture of unpaid overtime is far more important.   Arguing on the basis of economics, ie “being paid for their extra hours”, may expose the worker to greater risk of injury or illness at the workplace or on the way home.   Quality of life, work/life balance and personal health and safety are stronger arguments for “going home on time”, arguments supported by The Australia Institute and the Australian Greens.

Kevin Jones

The meaning of work

A weekly radio program broadcast on Australian community radio station 3CR, Stick Together, broadcast a lecture by Barbara Pocock on the meaning of work.

Barbara Pocock is a leading workplace researcher and remains the voice on work/life balance.  She is always worth reading and listening to.  It is impossible to management workplace safety without continuing to learn what work is and how people look at work.  A podcast of the Stick Together program is available for download.

Pocock says that many of the perspectives on work are negative and is therefore approached as a chore.  She talks about how laborious jobs have declined in relation to technology and client demand and discusses

  • “efficacy, identity, contribution, vocation
  • social connection
  • opportunity to learn
  • positive spillover from work”

Kevin Jones

Pure research and applied research on shiftwork

At secondary school there used to be a pure science and applied sciences.  Pure dealt with concepts and applied concerned the application of the concepts.  This dichotomy exists in most disciplines and occupational health and safety is no different.

Both elements are equally important, research should be able to be applied for social benefit and applied sciences constantly needs new information to try.

Some pure research was supplied to SafetyAtWorkBlog last week from the publishers of the Chronobiology International The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research, a publication not usually on our reading list.  Within this research on shift work was a useful summary of some of the issues shift work and health issues that OHS Managers must deal with.

The article is called “Wearing Blue-Blockers in the Morning Could Improve Sleep of Workers on a Permanent Night Schedule: A Pilot Study” and was published on 12 November 2009. It’s aims are below:

“The circadian clock is most sensitive to the blue portion of the visible spectrum, so our aim was to determine if blocking short wavelengths of light below 540 nm could improve daytime sleep quality and nighttime vigilance of night shiftworkers…..Blue-blockers seem to improve daytime sleep of permanent night-shift workers.”

The role of the circadian rhythm would be familiar to most readers who have had a role in managing shift workers or fatigue but it is difficult to see how the aims and findings of the research can directly assist safety managers.  The article’s introduction gives a great summary of the hazards of shift work and the research references.  It says

“In our modern society, working at night has become unavoidable in many fields. Night work is not only associated with acute (Giebel et al.,2008) and chronic health problems (Haus & Smolensky, 2006), but also with social impairment (Wirtz et al., 2008), lower performance (Rosa et al., 1990), increased risk of error (Gold et al., 1992), and industrial (Frank, 2000; Ong et al., 1987; Smith et al., 1994) and road accidents (Akerstedt et al., 2005; Folkard et al., 2005; Ingre et al., 2006; Novak & Auvil-Novak, 1996). Essentially, the most frequent complaints among shiftworkers are the lack of proper sleep during the day and lower vigilance while working at night (Akerstedt et al., 2008; Shield, 2002).”

The report goes on to explain the research study and how blueblocking helps eye discomfort, visual acuity and other shift-related issues but applying the OHS perspective to the hazards associate with shift work would require one to ask whether the shift work is required in the first place.  The decision-making process would then descend through the hierarchy of controls to possibly, engineering or administrative controls, where the Chronobiology International research may have some application.

The Chronobiology article is a good example of academic research into a particular problem.  It does not provide a particular practical solution but it provides an option that an OHS professional could consider by itself or in conjunction with other measures.  It may be that a major solution could only come through a combination of minor solutions.

The context of the research’s application is understandable even if most of the study is too technical for the usual OHS professional’s mind but along the way the “pure” science has provided a very contemporary summary of shift work safety research as well as a possible control option.

Kevin Jones

Behavioural-based safety put into context

Yesterday Associate Professor Tony LaMontagne spoke at the monthly networking meeting of the Central Safety Group in Australia.  His presentation was based around his research into job stress and its relationship with mental health.

LaMontagne was talking about the dominant position in personnel management where negative thoughts generate a negative working environment, one of stress, dissatisfaction and lower productivity.  SafetyAtWorkBlog asked whether this was the basis for many of the positive attitudinal programs, or behaviour-based safety programs, that are frequently spruiked to the modern corporations.

He said that this was the case and that such programs can have a positive affect on people’s attitudes to work.  But LaMontagne then expressed one of those ideas that can only come from outside an audience’s general field of expertise.  He said that the limitations of such programs are that they focus on the individual in isolation from their work.  He wondered how successful such a program will be in the long-term if a worker returns from a “happiness class” to a persistently large workload or excessive hours.  The benefits of the positive training are likely to be short-lived.

This presented the suggestion that positive training programs, those professing resilience, leadership, coping skills and a range of other psychological synonyms, may be the modern equivalent of “blaming the worker”.  The big risk of this approach to safety is that it ignores the relationship of the worker with the surrounding work environment and management resources and policies.  Even the worker who is furthest from head office does not work in isolation.

It is unclear what the positive training programs aim to achieve.  Teaching coping skills provides the worker with ways of coping with work pressures, but what if those pressures are unfair or unreasonable?  What if those pressures included bullying, harassment, excessive workloads?  Will the employer be meeting their OHS obligations for a safe and healthy working environment by having workers who can cope with these hazards rather than addressing those hazards themselves?

Professor LaMontagne reminded the OHS professionals in attendance yesterday that the aim of OHS is to eliminate the hazards and not to accommodate them.  He asked whether an OHS professional would be doing their job properly if they only handed out earplugs and headphones rather than try to make the workplace quieter?

Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog received an email about a new stress management program that involves “performance enhancement, changing the way people view corporate team dynamics”.  Evidence was requested on the measurable success of the program.  No evidence on the program was available but one selling point was that the company had lots of clients.  This type of stress management sales approach came to mind when listening to Professor Montagne.

When preparing to improve the safety performance of one’s company consider the whole of the company’s operations and see what OHS achievements may be possible.  Think long-term for structural and organisational change and resist the solutions that have the advantage of being visible to one’s senior executives but short on long-term benefits.

And be cautious of the type of approaches one may receive along the lines of programs that can change

“…high performance habits so employees can operate at 100% engagement and take their achievement to the next level while achieving a healthier culture in the workplace”.

Kevin Jones

Note: Kevin Jones is a life member of the Central Safety Group.  The CSG is just finalising its website ( information of forthcoming meetings will be available.

Good corporate advice tainted by poisonous product

In Matt Peacock’s book, “Killer Company“, an entire chapter is devoted to the legacy of the James Hardie chairman, John B Reid.  In Peacock’s talk at Trades Hall in October 2009, he mentioned that Reid had once published a book called “Commonsense Corporate Governance”.  The apparent hypocrisy of an executive of a company that knowingly sells toxic material while advising others on how to manage their corporation responsibly generated chuckles of disbelief in the Trade Hall audience.

Reid book cover 001SafetyAtWorkBlog obtained a copy of John Reid’s book to see first-hand that someone could do such a thing.  A sad part of all this is that the advice in the book is sensible but Reid’s “legacy” now taints all he does and all he says.

One random example of the advice he provides concerns dealing with consultants:

“Where, as with solicitors and auditors, it is imperative for the company to retain them, company staff need to be reminded that the professional advisers are paid for on the basis of the time that they spend on the company’s business. This is not predetermined by the nature of the task. In large measure it is affected by the decisions made and by the homework done within the company. What does this mean?

First, the imposition of new and more demanding, and frequently less precise, legislation on all manner of subjects has made management and, as a result, directors, nervous about things that directors 50 years ago would have dealt with very quickly-and inexpensively. Further, the increasing number of specialists necessary within a company’s own payroll is a result of this legislative epidemic, and has produced a reinforcement of this culture of caution and, occasionally, of fear.”

Safety professionals may want to take particular note of this corporate imperative.

Peacock points to the strict confidentiality clauses that Hardie included in any settlements in the 1970s.  Peacock writes (p 156)

“Secrecy indeed was Hardie’s byword, one endorsed by the chairman, who would later advise aspiring directors to ‘remain silent where there is criticism’.”

Reid recommended this in a bulleted list of ways to handle the media.

John B Reid, whose personal wealth was estimated at $A181 million in 2004, is not unique in advising companies while also having a tarnished corporate reputation.  Some argue that the adjective “good businessman” is a tautology.

There is no doubt that Reid was an active philanthropist and corporate citizen.  He was awarded an Order of Australia for “service to industry” – no citation is available to explain the decision.  In 2006, he received the Goldman Sachs JBWere Philanthropy Leadership Award.

Greek tragedies were full of hubris and examples of the single flaw that made good men do bad things.  If the plays of Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles have yet to be analysed for their advice to corporate executives, they should be, for not only do they show human flaws but human corporate flaws.

John B Reid’s book on corporate governance is an easy read and has valuable lessons but it is now a book that makes the reader feel dirty.

Kevin Jones

More on leave retention and mental health

The research statistics quoted in an earlier blog article have finally been located.

Page 1 from Research dataIt is important to understand the limitations of the study.  Firstly, these are not statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics so they do not have the same weight as the regularly issued Labour Force statistics.  It would be great if the government began collating this useful economic and business information.

The data released by Tourism Australia also does not include owner-operators or part-time employees.  Part-time employees account for over 3 million Australians out of a total population of 22 million*. That seems a large number to leave out of the calculation.

Nor does the study include any annual leave that does not involve travel.  So if one takes annual leave and recuperate in one’s backyard for four weeks or some quality time with the kids, this is not included.

These restrictions alone show that official statistics on leave use and retention are needed.

The Research Data has some comments specifically about the workplace

“There is a consistent and widespread perception that leave is harder to take than it used to be. Two separate shifts have contributed to this feeling: that it is harder to take time off from work and that it is more difficult to plan holidays.”

Whether it is harder to plan holidays is not relevant to SafetyAtWorkBlog but why is it harder to take time off from work? It is unclear if this is a perspective of the employee or the employer. What is easier to accept is that

“Organisations were no longer seen to factor leave-taking into employee workloads, but expected people to work 52 weeks per year.”

From an OHS perspective this is unforgivable, unhealthy and unsafe. Any companies that do this are breaching their OHS obligations of providing a safe and healthy working environment.

“People are shifting into ‘work addiction’ behaviour irrespective of how they feel about it. They’re working longer hours and are under pressure to perform. Despite a higher consciousness of the importance of work/life balance, many believe things are going in the other direction.

Rather than the onus of planning leave being on the organisation as in the past, it was viewed that this has shifted to the individual. Whereas many organisations used to have cover for people going on leave, it was seen that it is now the responsibility of individuals to organise their workloads if they want to take leave.”

Further research on what caused the change of attitude would be fascinating. It is suspected that the survey frenzy generated by the global financial crisis may be showing results soon on this issue.

What the research data indicates is that there may be “employers of choice” and one’s awareness of work/life balance is high but the reality is vastly different.   There may be financial, organisational and career barriers to achieving some form of stability in mental health and productivity.  What is undeniable is that having leave from work is as important for one’s mental wellbeing as sleep, and to neglect either is not healthy or productive.

What we need is hard and authoritative evidence so that those who motivate change can do so from a position of authority rather than from impressions.

Kevin Jones

*As with all statistical calculations in SafetyAtWorkBlog, please verify them from the original data. (Arts graduates can describe “alliteration” but can’t count very well) If wrong, please advise us immediately.

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