Stress: The Wear and Tear of Work

We are working longer and harder than we were decade ago and, say the experts, the wear and tear is taking its toll. But do employers accept that they have greater responsibility to look after the health and wellbeing of their people? No, says the Government. There is only so much we can afford to do, counter many employers. What is the truth of the matter?

If the Government passes its proposed changes to the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, stress and mental fatigue will be recognised as occupational hazards. The prospect has many employers worried. They are concerned at the possible punitive repercussions of implementing the Health and Safety in Employment Bill.

Changes proposed in the legislation include hefty increases in penalties (up to $500,000) for enforcement misdemeanours, and greater staff and union participation in identifying and reporting health and safety processes and infringements.

By including stress as an occupational hazard, the Government has effectively signalled that it wants organisations to take more holistic approach to considering health and safety management issues. “What is and has been prescribed is what any responsible employer should already be doing. Increased fines or increased staff participation will only concern those that currently don’t take health and safety seriously,” says Tower New Zealand chief executive, Jim Minto.

But, he accepts there is nervousness about the interpretation and application of the Act in respect to stress. “We acknowledge that certain work situations can be stressful and we therefore have responsibility to minimise that. Our concern is where the line is drawn between stress brought into the workplace from people’s personal lives versus stress created in the workplace.”

Minto predicts “potential minefield” if accountability and blame is apportioned exclusively to the employer saying, test cases will need to be viewed very closely once this legislation is enacted.

With Labour re-elected, Minto expects refinements to employment legislation as unions exert more pressure, stronger push towards collective bargaining for example. “Without Laila Harre driving it [the new health and safety legislation] however, it may be less of priority and perhaps little more conservative in its outcome.”

Stress is already covered as workplace hazard but the proposed new legislation highlights the issue, according to Christina Rogstad, general manager of sales and distribution with Southern Cross Healthcare.

“New Zealand businesses have accepted that ill health significantly reduces profits. HR people, employees and other agencies (such as the Mental Health Foundation) must work in partnership to look at the management of the injury, physical and emotional health package,” she explains.

Rogstad believes that organisations must start by identifying employees who are not coping. The Southern Cross programme, HealthWorks, manages health risk with health and wellbeing programmes for staff, health insurance providing immediate access to healthcare and then measures the overall changes in health, absenteeism and productivity.

And the company is working with the Mental Health Foundation on pilot project to identify and manage emotional health issues in the workplace.

The general manager of Blackmores NZ, Alison Quesnel, is positive about the current climate of health and safety in our workplaces. “Most leading companies are already applying responsible and holistic approach to their staff wellbeing. Employers realise the benefits of win-win situation.

“The days of rigid procedures for signing-in and out and the staff working until 7pm because the boss does it are long gone.”

But, says Quesnel, top management sets the examples and the standards. “In healthy workplace, management must lead by example. In the last five years, there have been huge improvements with more flexible working practices such as job sharing, working from home and leave to care for children and elderly family members.”

Auckland University lecturer Dr Felicity Lamm sums up New Zealand’s current health and safety record in the workplace in one word; “appalling”. Lamm completed her PhD researching OSH procedures in New Zealand and Australia.

She strongly supports the proposed legislative changes. “The lack of rationalised regulatory framework and gross anomalies have exposed workers to significant hazards that resulted in death.” She believes that classifying stress and fatigue as part of that framework “gives statutory recognition to judicial decisions and is in keeping with European Union ordinates”.

“The economic and social cost of illness and injuries associated with stress and fatigue are well documented,” says Lamm. She waves aside any prospect of problems in “measuring” these factors and the emergence of new “grievance industry”, saying abundant empirical evidence and case law now clearly measure stress.

Like athletes, employees need to understand the concepts of “loading” and “unloading”, according to Wendy Sweet, who runs Corporate Wellness Systems with colleague Kim Harvey. Their business developed New Zealand’s first ‘risk assessment’ programme with unique fitness and health testing programme for employees.

“Employers need to manage safety and reduce injury risk. Reducing injury risk also means encouraging and educating employees on correct posture and health management whilst at work (minimising fatigue). Most ACC claims are due to poor back management and OOS/RSI. Employees now spending more time sitting or standing and don’t practise or understand muscle fatigue management. Employers need to set up good educational programmes,” she says.

Fatigue management is another important issue, according to Sweet. Stress symptoms are often cumulative, and start when individuals don’t look after their health and wellbeing.

“It means staying fit, eating right and putting in place stress-management practices. It is not wholly the responsibility of employers – it is two-way relationship, whereby the employer can provide good workplace standards (including fitting the person to the job!), maintaining good communication channels, and encouraging and educating managers to understand and identify stress issues and be able to assist workers who need help in dealing with stress.”

The days of she’ll be right are over. Employers must realise the impact healthy staff has on productivity, says management consultant, Karen Tregaskis. director of Tregaskis Brown and Kairos Software – provider of specialist software to manage workforce health and safety – Tregaskis has many years’ experience in dealing with corporate health.

She describes the Kairos software, called Coachware, as “prevention tool rather than treatment – as sophisticated as any tool currently available to manage OOS or RSI.” The software features reminders for employers to check the status of their health and safety records. It can also be used as stress barometer as it identifies employees not taking adequate breaks or pauses from working at their keyboards.

The software, first developed about 10 years ago, has recently expanded interfaces between employer and employee for range of ‘wellness’ activities and tools including climate surveys, accident or indent reporting and hazard registers. “It also makes it quick and easy for an employee to refer themselves to employee assistance services (or their organisation’s equivalent) if under stress,” says Tregaskis.

EEO Trust executive director Trudie McNaughton believes leading workplaces are taking more holistic approach to health management. Entries into the Trust’s annual Work and Life Awards increasingly include health and wellness focus, “showing that management understands that the fitter and happier their employees are the more creative and productive they’ll be at work”.

McNaughton suggests focus on prevention of stress will need to be considered in partners

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