Occupational Health and Safety - Stress and Workaholism at Work

There has been a lot of hullabaloo recently about the problems facing Australia in retaining talented workers and the subsequent pressure placed on those remaining behind in the workplace.

The incidence in stress claims is rising and is having an impact on the economy and enterprises in general.

The incidences of people who work 'day in day out' who in many ways are closet workaholics is increasing.We are told that 1 in 5 Australians are suffering from some sort of mental illness and that 1 in 7 teenager's at high-school suffer from depression. This comes from proven research but my guess is that it is probably higher, after all these subjects are still quite taboo in our society.

Why be the richest and unhappiest person in the cemetery? Take a walk around the local cemetery sometimes and read the inscriptions ? it's actually quite interesting what you read.

People are becoming crankier, less tolerant, and the workplace is rapidly becoming a battleground where much emotion is wasted in argy bargy, meetings and petty grievances.

It could be argued that 'workaholism' could be in part contributed by the ageing population, different generational expectations, talented workers moving offshore and the move from permanent employment to contract working. This is simply untrue.

The lesson seems to be that some have work and others don't, slaving away 12 hours plus per day in order to keep the wolf from the door, the mortgage paid, the annual holiday and whatever else pushes their buttons and sacrifice quality of life ? for what?.

Australia has one of the most highly qualified unemployed 'work-force' in the world.

I am a firm believer in education and as one wise person said 'if you think that education is expensive try ignorance'. I am committed to life long learning so long as it benefits my clients and me.

But what about the commonsense approach of sharing the load and looking after our back yard.

Why aren't company's learning from their mistakes, taking responsibility (a dirty word today) and ensuring that they are adequately resourced and taking the time to know their people. Or could it be that the relentless drive for shareholder value has blinded the eyes of these executives who sit in their ivory towers issuing edicts mindless to the fact that below them often sits a smoking powder keg. If you were privy to the previous company secrets that I was when I was CEO and the mindless way my superiors though of and treated their employees you would be shocked. Or when I was in Banking and the way the Bank paid out $500,000 in unbudgeted redundancies in 1994 besides other amounts that were cleverly disguised in various ways simply to get rid of people.

In my daily work as a strategic human resource management advisor I am privy to the heartaches of people as they tell me their difficulties. Most of these difficulties focus around other work colleagues or overwork. Chronic overwork has a tremendous impact of personal health, family life and company productivity.

I have to confess that I was once a workaholic for many years before a heart scare woke me up in time and thankfully without doing any major damage to my health. This is not just my story but one of many that is illustrated by the following true story that I was involved with (names and identities have been changed).

The following is a true story with details changed to protect privacy.

Liam was the General Manager of an organisation that operated in New South Wales and Queensland. He was very experienced in his field and had been a secret workaholic for 15 years.

He had been employed to help get the company back on track after the overseas parent company had put the cleaners through management and left the company drift for 3 months without leadership

Soon after starting he began to experience increased pressure and the mantra seemed to be 'I've been working on the railroad all the dead day long'

Yes it was sales, sales, sales, profit, profit, and profit come hell or 'high-water' with no regard to workers who were viewed as lazy.

For the first 6 months Liam worked hard at raising the company standard. This often required Liam travelling away from home.

Liam started to achieve some credible results and after 6 months had NSW and QLD co-operating as a team for the first time in 12 years and sales and profits started to increase. This came to the notice of the overseas parent but the pressure was not lessoned. This was despite him working 14 ?16 hour days.

Liam wasn't happy and looked at his options. He took the option to resign although he could have taken leave under workplace health and safety guidelines. In his resignation letter he tabled his concerns about the company's breach of their duty of care, and other known incidences that he had brought to management and that he had not been given the reasonable relief he had requested.

I became involved with this process and represented Liam in discussions with the Chairman of the Board.

What does the law say?

Under the Workplace Health and Safety Act 1995 employers have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of all workers by managing risks at the workplace. This includes physical, mental and emotional. In addition, employers are under a common law duty of care and will be found liable if they break the law and a breach of their statutory and common law obligations are proven. There are heavy penalties for individuals and organisations that disregard the law.

All employers have an obligation to be totally upfront and realistic about the job on offer. For more information you will find articles at(www.biz-momentum.com) Biz Momentum which are available for you free of charge.

What should the company have done?

? The company should have had in place a workplace stress policy.

? Management should have taken their duty of care under workplace health & safety seriously. In this instance employee moral began to suffer because of mismanagement.

? The company should have had a policy on working hours and what constituted reasonable expectations for after hours, work including management.

? The company should have taken Liam's reports and discussions seriously and investigated his concerns.

? The company had a general duty of care to ensure that there was adequate employees' to cover the work.

? The company should have consulted their industrial or legal professionals

? The company should have given Liam adequate time to recover and re-size his position. He had more than proved he could operate successfully through the financial and leadership results.

What should Liam have done?

? Liam followed the right processes documenting his difficulties and speaking with management

? Liam kept file notes of these discussions.

? He requested leave that was reluctantly given but only for 1 week, insufficient to recover.

? He should have gone to his Doctor and taken advice and in my view taken long term leave through WH&S.

? Liam took industrial advice.

? Taken counselling ? we all have issues that sometimes speaking with someone else can help resolve.

The Wash-up

I meet with the Chairman of the Board and stressed the seriousness of Liam's situation. Yes the Chairman understood this and acknowledged there had been some wrong doing by the company.

As Liam had voluntary resigned the Chairman proposed that a payment of $60,000 be offered as a without prejudice payment on signing a deed of release.

It was ultimately Liam's choice and he accepted.

Philip Lye is Director of Biz-momentum (http://www.biz-momentum.com)providing services in startegic human resource management, review and preparation of HR policies, procedures and workplace health and safety compliance strategies.

Philip speaks a conferences and forums on strategic business issues. He is also a qualified Accountant

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