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Office life ain't all it's cracked up to be

Understanding the threats to office employees' health and safety.
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Office life ain

Office life ain't all it's cracked up to be

24 June 2019

The classical images of Australian stockmen and steelworkers, hard yakka and getting your hands dirty are fast being replaced by the reality of millions of desk-bound professional, managerial and administrative workers. Even teachers, nurses and builders now spend a big chunk of their time focused on their computer screens, not to mention social workers, psychologists, legal and accounting staff.

But just because office workers don’t face the risks of dangerous machinery, falling off roofs or being buried alive in trenches, it doesn’t mean there are no threats to their health and safety.

Hotbed of hostility

Over the years, the focus of health and safety concerns for office workers has shifted through overuse injuries (formerly known as RSI) among data entry operators, ‘sick building syndrome’ and air quality issues, as well as the risks of sedentary work and whether standing desks help avoid back pain. Guidance on office health and safety from WHS regulators also mentions physical hazards such as temperature, air-conditioning, the storage of heavy items and tripping over electrical cords.

The most significant assaults on office workers’ wellbeing, however, tend to be on the level of mental and emotional health, rather than involving physical or safety hazards.

As anyone who had ever had to cope with such things knows, office politics, internal conflict, restructuring, downsizing, harassment, humiliating treatment from a team leader, grievances, performance appraisals and other pressures and management processes can be immensely stressful for all concerned. While the outward appearance of an office environment may seem the picture of safety, stability and calm, it can in fact be a hotbed of hostility, irritation and alienation.

Changing work practices such as having some staff working from home, reducing office space and establishing shared work environments including ‘hot-desking’ or other arrangements where staff members are not assigned a desk or space of their own can also exacerbate mental stress. For example, one study found that shared work environments were correlated with an increase in distractions, uncooperative behaviours, distrust and negative relationships.

For employers and managers, anxiety about survival in a highly competitive environment, financial performance and technological change can be exacerbated by staff complaints, building maintenance and work intensification issues, among many other worries.

For these reasons, health and safety issues for office workers fall very much into the area of psychological wellbeing. This is harder to measure and demonstrate than physical wellbeing, but it is just as important.

As WHS laws and practices have evolved over the decades, there has been increasing recognition that the less obvious, less tangible health and safety risks like stress, harassment and bullying are very real indeed to the people who experience them. Health and safety laws acknowledge this by defining ‘health’ to cover both the psychological as well as the physical aspects of wellbeing.

This means that the mental, emotional and social impact on staff of the work, the workplace and its culture should have just as high a profile in terms of employers’ WHS responsibilities, as their employees’ physical safety.

Workplace culture and the employer’s role

A key factor affecting the psychological wellbeing of staff is the workplace culture – that is, its norms, values and practices. For example, if a high-pressure workload is combined with a hectoring management style and a lack of appreciation for the effort people put in, this is a recipe for adverse psychological outcomes.

Employers and senior managers are the main drivers of workplace culture. As far as possible, the aim should be to support workers’ commitment, productivity and wellbeing.

Management can set the tone by modelling and promoting a professional standard of civility; in other words, behaving and communicating in ways that are respectful and value the views of others.

They should also take workplace grievances and stress issues seriously. Obviously, employers cannot be expected to resolve sources of mental stress over which they have no control, but to the extent that they are able to address issues raised by staff, employers should take steps to understand and try to alleviate staff problems and minimise work-related stress, as far as is reasonably practicable

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