The retention of leave indicates a broken business

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The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ACCI) has released a statement that discusses the economic and personal costs of presenteeism in relation to Australia’s new National Employment Standards.

In the statement the ACCI mentions:

“…the colossal national stockpile of annual leave and its toxic impact on the wellbeing of business and employees.”

“It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes or even Dr Watson to deduce that employees who take their annual leave are far less likely to take a ‘sickie’ due to fatigue or illness.”

The statistics quoted by ACCI include:

  • 123 million days stockpiled nationally.
  • $33.3 billion value to national leave stockpile.
  • 73% of national leave stockpilers are likely to be managers and earn more than $70K per annum.
  • 71% of leave stockpilers nationally are likely to be male.
  • 73% of leave stockpilers consider work/life balance to be important to their lives.
  • 70% of leave stockpilers consider taking leave to be a good way to achieve work/life balance.

It is not unreasonable to assert that the excessive retention of leave by an individual is an indication that that person does not understand that annual leave is an important element of their own mental health and safety at work.

If an executive believes they are indispensable to the company then that executive is making poor OHS decisions that flow to other employees.  Just as positive change can come from the senior management so can unhealthy work practices.  The retention of leave is just such a practice.

In a broader corporate and management context, the retention of excessive leave is an indication of a poorly managed business.  Leave, and its mental health benefits, should be integrated into the operational business strategy.  No one should be indispensable in a work role, although it is acknowledged that Plan B’s are not always as effective as Plan A’s.

Business continuity and risk management demand that contingencies be put in place for prolonged absences, or short leave breaks.

ACCI has to be admired for bringing the retention of leave to the attention of its members but the release is principally an information leaflet for a government tourism website.  Being physically absent from work is very different from being mentally absent from work.

To achieve a proper break from work, contact with the workplace and clients must be severed.  Even in this situation it may take several days to break out of “work mode”, to stop reaching for the mobile phone, to stop worrying about whether a work task is being done and to start the process of relaxing.

A “good” workplace, a “workplace of choice”, should have work management structures in place to allow its employees to recuperate from the pressures of work.  This is beyond flexible work structures and needs a business to thoroughly understand the mental health needs of its workers and business continuity.

Kevin Jones

The original research data for the figures above has been located and is available elsewhere on SafetyAtWorkBlog

OHS and workload – follow-up

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SafetyAtWorkBlog has had a tremendous response to the article concerning Working Hours and Political Scandal.  Below are some of the issues raised in some of the correspondence I have received from readers and OHS colleagues.

The Trade Union Congress Risk e-bulletin has a similar public service/mental health case which has been resolved through the Courts.   The site includes links through to other media statements and reports.

Australia’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has launched its work/life balance awards for 2009.  The information available on the awards is strongly slanted to a work/family balance which is very different from work/life and excludes employees making decisions for the benefit of their own mental health – a proper work/life balance which is the philosophical basis underpinning OHS legislation.  SafetyAtWorkBlog is investigating these awards with DEEWR.

SafeWork in South Australia is working on a code of practice on working hours and has been providing OHS advice on this matter since 2000.

The WA government has had a draft code on working hours for some time.

A legal reader has pointed out that  “the 38 hour week issue is not set in stone …[and]  is not a maximum for non-award employees.”  So expect more industrial relations discussion on that issue over the next two years.

One reader generalised from the Grech case about decision-making at senior levels, a concern echoed by many others.

“The Grech case illustrates the gradual disintegration of effectiveness, and the employee’s own inability to recognise that it is not a personal failing of efficiency, rather an unrecognised systemic risk.

When the employee is at senior level, there is more likelihood there will be poor attention to the warning signs. Any ‘underperformance’ would be seen as a personal failing. For those of us in the safety business, it is obvious that the system itself is in need of urgent risk management.”

There were congratulations from many readers for raising a significant and hidden OHS issue.

“Many people in industry work more than 70 hour a week. This affects their health and personal relationships.”

“Overwork and under-resourcing lead to poor decision making, adverse business outcomes, and in the long term psychological and physical ill health. Both the government and corporate sectors are paying little attention to this issue.”

The workplace hazards resulting from fatigue are being addressed in several industries such as transport, mining and forestry, where attentiveness is hugely important because of the catastrophic consequences of poor judgement.

One of the issues from the Grech case is that the quality of judgement in non-critical, or administrative, occupations can be severely affected by fatigue, mental health and other psychosocial issues.  These may not affect the health and well-being of others but can have a significant effect on the individual.  OHS does not only deal with systemic or workplace cultural elements but is equally relevant to the individual worker.

Kevin Jones

[Thanks to all those who have written to me and continue to do so. KJ]

New Work/Life Research

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There seems to be new institutes and academic schools popping up regularly over research into the issue of work/life balance.  Recently one of the oldest and most prominent of the institutes, the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, released new research data.AWALI--full cover

The latest Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) was released in late July 2009.  The executive summary identifies several important issues relevant to OHS:

“Three years of data about work-life interference in Australia tell us that many employees experience frequent interference from work in their personal, home and community lives, many feel overloaded at work and feelings of time pressure are also common and growing.”

“Work hours are central to work-life interference….. Many Australians are a long way from their preferred working hours and the 2008/09 economic downturn has not made any difference to the incidence of this mismatch.”

The work by Barbara Pocock and others at the Centre is characterised by recommendations for improvements rather than simply describing a situation.  In this data the researchers say

“Our AWALI reports over the past three years suggest that employers and public policy makers can help workers deal with work-life pressures.  This involves improving the quality of supervision and workplace culture, controlling workloads, designing ‘do-able’ jobs, reducing long working hours and work-related commuting, increasing employee-centered flexibility and options for permanent part-time work, improving the fit between actual and preferred hours and increasing care supports.”

It is obvious from these comments that OHS professionals need to work hard on these matters to create, or maintain, their workplace safety cultures.

Kevin Jones

Maintain instead of repair

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Every country has its share of high-fliers who “burn out”.  Many fade away from the public eye with their careers over.  Frequently this path to wealth and prominence is not perceived as a workplace health or safety matter.  Some people decide that the health trade-off of multi-million dollar salaries is worth it.

Sadly the psychological reality of this personal decision is often masked by clichés.  Frequently, executives say that a major motivation for their decision is “to spend more time with my family”.  Many executives may believe this to be a major part of their decision, but regrettably, this worthy sentiment has become a cliché – the equivalent of a beauty pageant winner working toward “world peace”.

The family-time phrase/reason/excuse signifies an important element of the executive’s personality.  They were willing to sacrifice decades of their relationship with their partner and to be absent from the development of their children for money.

If any of these departing executives use the family-time phrase in the same departure speech or media exit-interview  as regaining “control of their lives” to “re-engage with the most important people in my life”, ask the executives, or politicians, “how do you justify ignoring your family over your career?”.

In some cases one could be more specific.  “Do you think that your multi-million career was related to your daughter’s persistent attempts to kill herself?”  “After being absent so frequently and for so long, are you still justified in describing your marriage as a loving relationship, or your partner as your ‘soulmate’?”  “Was your million-dollar salary really worth it?”

Int he wake of the self-generated corporate financial crisis, some corporate executives are re-examining their ethics and morality.  Not enough are going through this but it’s a start.  Most say they operate for the benefit of shareholders but they cannot deny the reality of massive remuneration for their efforts.  What they are ignoring is the individual cost to their loved ones of these efforts.

Should we look up to the billionaires who sacrifice the wellbeing of others they say they love to chase the dollar?  Are these the paragons of our society?

People are trying to maintain or establish a work/life balance.  (There are several articles at SafetyAtWorkBlog that report on this movement.)  But the reality is that to achieve a work/life balance, one must be prepared to sacrifice income.  This may involve the necessity of achieving a certain stage in one’s career that is not the top, but still a position of value in the company and, equally important, of value to one’s family and even one’s own psychological well-being.  If one’s colleagues fail to understand this decision, the workplace culture is faulty, and probably irreparable.

If the ultimate ideal is to have a happy, functional, and sustainable community, one must examine one’s own motivations, and one’s own personal priorities.  Everyone must consider whether we want to emulate those who sacrifice their family’s welfare for money or whether we support those who rebut the “glory of the high-achiever” and emulate those who love their family enough to spend time with them through their career.  Maintenance is easier than repair in life as in safety management.

Kevin Jones

What the next generation of graduates wants

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A survey of graduates by GradConnection released on 15 July 2009 has important information for Australian companies and provides some optimism for the OHS profession and regulators.

A dominant element of modern employment is work/life balance. In some disciplines this is taken as workplace flexibility. In terms of workplace safety, work/life balance is a euphemism for psychosocial hazards of stress, bullying, fatigue, and workload amongst others. From this position, the survey findings showed that, when asked “What are the most important extra benefits?”, work/life balance scored the most support at almost 39%.

Companies that want to recruit graduates, often those companies which are looking to refresh their staff and workplace culture but also need to build sustainability and longevity, need to review their existing working conditions to match the desires of job seekers. This could be an enormous task for corporations that will take years but smaller companies can afford to be more reactive and flexible and may get the edge on attracting graduates.

It must be acknowledged that over 60% identified high salaries as the most important element in their salary packages. But the work/life balance indicates a growing reality that graduates are less likely to trade off wellbeing for dollars.

This is supported in terms of extra benefits where flexitime and flexible working arrangements gained around 24% and 22% support, respectively. Companies must operate within the time constraints of their industry, suppliers and customers but they should also identify those work processes that allow for flexibility. It may be useful to formalize start and finish times so that there remains a core set of hours within the working day where interaction of staff and clients can be maximised. Some of the social structures are already pushing in this direction with issues of public transport, schooling and childcare already accommodating this flexibility.

David Jenkins, the director of GradConnection, told SafetyAtWorkBlog that

The data we have extracted is drawn from contributions by about 10,500 graduates currently looking at their career options. It gives employers clear indicators as to what grads are looking for in their careers and helps potential employers adjust or increase their messaging about careers on offer at their companies.

Hope for OHS professionals and regulators comes from the fact that of the values that graduates wanted an employer to embrace, health and safety ranked third, behind equal opportunities and environmental sustainability.

This survey is the first generated through the website of GradConnections so the next survey should be able to provide some trend data.

Kevin Jones