Engagement is Consultation re-badged

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Recently an international business established an intranet discussion forum concerning “employee engagement”.  By and large, this is another example of business management twaddle.

Essentially, when one engages with another, there is discussion, a conversation and the sharing of ideas in a cooperative, positive manner.  In OHS circles this is called “consultation”.  By discussing issues, people learn the basics, they refine their understandings and, often, come to a consensus or a resolution.

“Engagement” is another word for what happens on a daily basis in workplaces everywhere.  What is bothersome is when a new management term is generated in order to, primarily, sell a new management book, and in a much lower priority, to provide a new perspective.

In the current edition of Australia’s business magazine, BRW, there is a discussion on engagement, (not available online).  Through an OHS perspective, interpret the following quotes about “employee engagement scores):

“About 40 per cent of employees were failing at the most basic level, saying they either didn’t know what was expected of them or didn’t have the tools to do it.”

OHS = consultation, job description, induction, supervision.

“Those in a leadership position now are taking advantage and redoubling their efforts around employee engagement.”

OHS =  leadership, safety culture

The article makes a useful distinction that an “engaged employee” does not equal a “happy employee”.

The BRW article does not, however, discuss the possible downsides of engagement.  There is a risk that benchmarking of engagement may applied inappropriately and, according to the CIPD:

“Research confirms however that there is a significant gap between levels of engagement found among UK employees and those that would produce optimum performance.  HR professionals need to recognise that engagement is a strategic issue that cannot simply be left to manage itself.”

Engagement is another tool for management but just how many tools are needed?

In short, a management system needs to talk with employees, listen to employees, and support employees.  Wow, how radical.  It can be that simple.

Kevin Jones

Mental Illness and Workplace Safety

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Reports in the Australian media this week indicated that “nearly half the population has a common mental health problem at some point during their lives”.  Safety professionals and HR practitioners should take note of these statistics and hope that it does not manifest in their shift, even though it is likely.

The difficulty with trying to manage or anticipate mental health issues is that they seem to have evolved over time and multiplied.  There is the common phrase of “trying to herd cats” and it seems that mental health issues are the cats.  One could apply lateral thinking and propose the solution is to get a dog but will the dog herd a cat that doesn’t look like a cat, smell like a cat, or worst scenario of all, a cat that resembles a dog!

Because of the fluctuating psychiatric states of everyone everyday how does one recognise when a mood swing becomes a mental health issue.  Does one take everything as a mental health issue and waste time on frivolous matters?  Or is there no such thing as a frivolous matter?

In the one article there are these confusing and inconsistent terms for mental health:

  • “common mental health problem”
  • “mental condition”
  • “non psychotic psychiatric problems”
  • “mood disorder”
  • “anxiety disorder”
  • “mental health disorder”
  • “substance abuse or dependency”
  • “mental disorder”
  • “mental illness”
  • “psychiatric condition”

In this report it is unlikely that the synonyms have been generated by the journalist as the data quoted is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but it indicates the confusion that safety professionals can feel when they need to accommodate more recent workplace hazards – the psychosocial hazards.

The list above does not include the “established” hazards of bullying, occupational violence or stress.  The fact that there may be a clear differentiation between mental health symptoms and mental disorders but that needs to be clearly communicated to those who manage workplaces so that control resources can be allocated where best needed.

The article referred to above provides interesting statistics and there are gems of useful information in the ABS report but the article provides me with no clues about how to begin a coordinated program to address the mental health issues in the workplace.  It is an article without hope, without clues, without pathways on which the professional can act.

There is no doubt the psychosocial hazards at work are real but the advocates of intervention need to clarify the message.

Kevin Jones

(This blog posting does not discuss the recent changes to compensation for defence personnel and soldiers for mental health from combat, but mental health in that “industry” is a fascinating comparison to what occurs in the private sector.)

Safety In Action Conference

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For three days next week, SafetyAtWorkBlog will be reporting from the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne. This is the 12th annual conference and it remains the dominant OHS conference on the Australian circuit for duration, affordability and credibility.

For three days next week, SafetyAtWorkBlog will be reporting from the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne.  This is the 12th annual conference and it remains the dominant OHS conference on the Australian circuit for duration, affordability and credibility.

More information on the conference is available at www.siaconference.com.au.  Check out the videos below on this page for an introduction to some of the speakers.

Contact me through my email if you are going to be at the conference and want to meet up.

Kevin Jones

OHS context of leave entitlements

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Family-friendly work initiatives always get increased attention around International Women’s Day.  This is a shame as work/life balance is not gender specific, however the dominant Western family structures make the application of the concept relative to gender.  As long as the matter is perceived as a “women’s issue”, it will struggle for attention in a basically patriarchal society.

Family-friendly work structures are predominantly associated with hours of work and leave entitlements.  These don’t seem to be OHS matters as they are mostly handled through HR or the pay department however there is a link and it is a link that work/life and work/family advocates may use as a strong argument for their cause.

Leave is a worker entitlement for several reasons:

  • Situations may occur where the employee is required to stay home to look after an ill relative;
  • The employee may stay home as they are too sick to work; and
  • The employee may feel they need time away from work to rebalance their lives.

The second point has an OHS relevance because going to work while sick may introduce a hazard to your work colleagues – presenteeism.  In many jurisdictions it is a breach of an employee’s OHS legislative obligations to not generate hazards for their work colleagues or members of the public while at work.

The third point relates to an individual’s management of stress and/or fatigue.

In Australia, some workplaces allow for “doona days” (or for those in the Northern hemisphere’s winter at the moment “duvet days”).  These are days where a workplace and the employee would benefit psychologically from some time-out in order to “reboot”.

It may also be a valid fatigue management mechanism where long hours have been worked to the extent where attending the workplace may present hazards to others, or to themselves by feeling impaired, or have the employee working well below the appropriate level of attentiveness for the job to be properly done.

Leave entitlements, to some extent, form part of the employer’s legislative obligations to have a safe and healthy work environment.  But they also support the worker’s obligations to look after themselves and not present hazards to others.

The OHS element of leave entitlements should be emphasized when discussions of family-friendly workplaces occur.  Not only does it legitimately raise the profile of OHS in business planning, it can add some moral weight to an issue that can get bogged down in industrial relations.

Some readers may want to check out recent presentations to the US Senate in early-March 2009, by various people on the issue of family-friendly work structure.  These include

Eileen Appelbaum, Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University,

Dr Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund,

Rebia Mixon Clay, a home health care worker who cares for her brother in Chicago. (Rebia’s video is below)

Kevin Jones

Happiness is a warm million

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The Australian newspapers in late-February shared the “outrage” of politicians and then the community over training that was provided to public servants by the American “happiness guru” Professor Martin Seligman.

The cost to the taxpayer seems exorbitant but the psychologist was from the US and was training delegates for many days.  It is not unusual for US experts to charge over $US600 per hour plus travel and accomm0dation.

The Community & Public Sector Union‘s Assistant National Secretary Paul Gepp noted  in a media statement that news of the expensive conference, which paid an American psychologist’s team more than $440,000, came with news of more layoffs of  public servants, as 100 lost their jobs in the Crime Commission. 

“Public servants are working hard to keep essential services going, keep our communities safe and make the stimulus package work,” said Mr Gepp.  “Million-dollar, feel-good conferences don’t help get these jobs done. If the Government is looking to cut, we suggest it starts with junkets like this.” 

The OHS context of this furore comes from the reasons for the training and whether the same benefits could have been obtained at a reduced price.

Media reports say that in parliament on 26 February 2009

“[Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Julia] Gillard attacked Liberal frontbencher Andrew Southcott for attempting to “parody” Professor Seligman, who she described as a “noted educationalist”.
“He is the leader in the development of (a) resiliency program that has been shown to make a difference to mental health issues amongst young people, including issues like anorexia and depression.  That is actually serious and ought not to be cat-called about.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the workloads of the public sector under the Rudd government and how the government has chosen not to set reasonable production targets.  The Seligman seminars are an example of trying to treat the symptoms and not the cause.   Seligman’s programs are not the issue here as the results claimed may be absolutely justified.  

Part of the problem for the government is timing, and in this, it shares a lot with behavioural-based safety programs.  Whenever a company introduces a wellbeing program, or a happiness seminar, or resilience training, or a team-building extreme sports excursion, it indicates to me that either the company is one that has already tried the traditional approaches to controlling workplace hazards, hasn’t  the faintest ides what to do to improve the safety in their workplace , or has too much money in its human resources budget and needs to spend it by the end of the financial year.

Regrettably, the money spent on public service mental health has been poorly targeted and papers over the cracks whilst ignoring the structural instability of how it manages its people.

Kevin Jones