22/07/2003 - 22:00

Workplace focus on wellbeing

22/07/2003 - 22:00


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Corporate health management has gone well beyond the 1970s version of an annual check-up for those at the top. This week Susan Bower looks at why.

Workplace focus on wellbeing

INDIVIDUAL responsibility for health and wellbeing remains just that, but employers are paying greater attention to these factors, and industry bodies are warning of adverse consequences if they are ignored.

Regulations require a raft of occupational safety considerations, and companies will offer services such as regular cancer skin tests for outdoor workers.

But surveys have shown worker satisfaction and productivity can be boosted and employee churn lowered by implementing health promotion initiatives for which there are no regulatory requirements.

This recognition is not new. Workplace gyms and lunchtime team sports and athletics became popular during the 1980s, and many industry organisations and larger corporations have long offered access to counselling services.

Some employers have also been proactive in minimising workplace stress, which can stem from environmental, work-related or interpersonal factors.

But FitCorp Nominees director Frank Bowyer said businesses, in general, were now paying greater attention to life and work-balancing needs, so as to attract and retain the best staff.

“The concept goes beyond fitness,” Mr Bowyer said.

UnionsWA assistant secretary Dave Robinson agrees that while basic health and safety issues remain of paramount importance, a more holistic view of healthy workplaces is developing.

UnionsWA was supportive of well-being programs, Mr Robinson said, including the traditional support mechanisms offered to help employees wanting to make health changes, such as quitting smoking or losing weight.

As Australian society becomes more litigious, work-related health and lifestyle issues are showing up on risk management portfolios within businesses.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions is conducting a ‘reasonable working hours’ campaign, reporting surveys and studies showing extended working hours could compromise the long-term health and wellbeing of both workers and organisations.

One report quoted by the ACTU says: “A significant body of research has now demonstrated declining workplace performance has been associated with extended hours.

“In addition, extended hours of work have also been associated with reduced employee wellbeing, reduced organisational commitment and poor health outcomes.

“These factors have in turn been linked to declining levels of productivity and workplace safety.

“Indeed where extended hours of work result in a net transfer of costs to the community and taxpayer, it can be argued that such practices constitute anti-competitive behaviour.”

Among member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Australia has been shown to have the largest proportion of workers working more than 50 hours per week.

Australia also comes second in the longest average working hours league for full-time employees.

As Australia’s major resource State, the Western Australian experience makes a significant contribution to the statistics.

Consumer and Employment Protection Minister John Kobelke said the WA Government was concerned that, on average, Western Australians work “among the highest number of hours in Australia”.

Hence, the Government has set up an extended hours review panel to report to Mr Kobelke by the end of the year.

Meanwhile the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA is investigating the effects of long shifts on productivity drop-off.

Lengthening the number of hours in a shift can change the social fabric within mining towns, Mr Robinson said.

This occurred in Collie when mining shifts were first changed, but now the average age of coal workers there is beyond that of those competing in regular team sports competitions.

The culture of long working hours is ingrained not only in the mining industry.

The hours worked by junior doctors making critical decisions in high-stress environments is constantly under question.

In this scenario the potential consequences go beyond personal health and lifestyle impacts and the safety of colleagues to that of the safety of the broader community.

Further, these consequences extend to the costs of indemnity insurance and the availability of appropriately trained personnel willing to offer services.

In 1996 the Australian Medical Association adopted a safer workplace policy, incorporating a ‘safer hour’ project with the aim of developing a national code of practice covering rosters and work hours.

A recent study undertaken as part of the project again revealed hours worked remained excessive.


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