New data on workplace suicides should change the mental health at work discussion

“No one should die at work” is a common statement at Worker Memorial Services every year. Occupational health and safety (OHS), in particular, uses death as a starting point for reflection and sometimes action. Workplace death is a recognised worst-case scenario and has long been established as a benchmark for measuring OHS progress.

[This article discusses workplace suicides]

There is increased interest in psychosocial hazards at work with the worthy goal of preventing these hazards. However, psychosocial deaths such as those by suicide do not hold the same place or role as “traditional” physical workplace deaths. They are rarely the launching pad for drastic change in our systems of business, but that is starting to change if new data and analysis are any indication.

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A curious Worksafe awards night of omissions and shadows

If I was asked to describe last week’s awards night conducted by WorkSafe Victoria, it would be curious. This article does not question the legitimacy of the award winners and finalists: all deserve the accolades and the glory. In fact, there perhaps should have been more of them.

The atmosphere of the event was relatively muted. There were no tables of loud finalists from previous years, but the tables associated with the night’s final award, the Health and Safety Representative (HSR) of the Year, were rowdy at the end. The Master of Ceremonies was a last-minute replacement and made little attempt to entertain. Her job was to read the script and announce the winners, and she was good at that, but there was no lively personality as in previous years, no one to warm up the crowd.

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Mental confusion

Recently, Safe Work Australia published exciting and important data about mental health at work. The data seems to support the assertion that psychosocial hazards at work are a significant risk, but I remain confused. I asked SWA to help unconfuse me and they have tried.

One of the biggest handicaps that occupational health and safety (OHS) has experienced over decades is translating data and research into terms and concepts that the layperson (of which I claim to be) can understand. OHS communication is improving, but more effort is needed.

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What makes Victoria think it is so special?

The Victorian government has released the final report of the Legislative Council Economy and Infrastructure Committee’s inquiry into the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (WorkCover Scheme Modernisation) Bill. Many readers will already be asleep after that sentence. Forgive me, it is accurate, but is the report of any use? It certainly progresses the debate on psychosocial regulations.

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Arguing over the WorkCover scheme’s viability again avoids harm prevention

The Victorian Parliament has been debating legislation the government claims is essential to fix a “broken” workers’ compensation system. There are a lot of elements to what is broken – premium increases, political access to WorkSafe finances, political topping up of WorkSafe finances, high numbers and costs for workplace mental health compensation claims and more. What is largely missing is a discussion on the prevention of mental health injuries at work.

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Plain speaking on mental health v nuance

Plain speaking is one of the greatest challenges of any profession. Many professionals struggle to communicate their excellent work and knowledge which has created the moves for Research-To-Practice and specialised communicators (as opposed to public relations advisers). Human Resources (HR) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) need communications specialists, or perhaps just interpreters, if a recent article on workers compensation and mental health is anything to go by.

If we are going to achieve a successful and effective change on workplace mental health, we need to start to understand each other.

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Why is profit put before safety?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) is a remarkably insular profession.  It tends to narrow its focus on legislative compliance even though Social Determinants of Health is a core unit of tertiary OHS education. OHS professionals are also notably weak in understanding the business realities that their employers and customers face.  This inability to understand the economic realities is a common criticism of OHS, not reflecting “common sense” and being naïve.

To understand OHS’ limitations and potential, it is necessary to have a basic knowledge of the economic and political ideologies under which clients and employers work. “The Big Myth – How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market”, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, contributes to that understanding.

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