Creating jobs that are safe for workers

Like most people, I was pleased to hear the Government’s commitment to creating more jobs when it was announced in last year’s Budget. There is no doubt we need more opportunities for people, especially young Australians. But in order for our economy to recover sustainably, we need the jobs of tomorrow to enable both Australian businesses and workers to thrive. 

If we continue doing what we’ve been doing, I believe we will be setting Australians up for worsening mental health and workplace experiences that detrimentally impact productivity, retention, stigma and stress. 

As the old saying goes, “if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”.

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The safe work movements over the last 20 years have radically transformed our physical ways of working. Thanks to those efforts, most of us enjoy physically safer working environments and have a low risk of being physically injured at work. It’s time to pour that same energy into making our jobs and workplaces psychologically safe.  

As we rebuild Australia’s economy, we have a golden opportunity to avoid repeating actions that harm workers and lead to poorer performing businesses. The great news is that Australian businesses have a secret weapon.  

In the latest edition of Australia’s largest workplace mental health study, 'Indicators of a Thriving Workplace’, SuperFriend has quantified the positive and negative impacts of 2020’s radically changed ways of working. Many are counter-intuitive to what you might expect during a global pandemic and economic recession. These results provide

Governments and industry with a clear path forward to create ‘better’ jobs and workplaces of the future that deliver increased economic and social outcomes. 

THE LINK BETWEEN TANGIBLE ACTION AND PRODUCTIVITY

Workplaces that have implemented at least eight tangible actions to improve workforce mental health and wellbeing, have consistently higher proportions of workers being more productive.

In 2020, we know that worker wellbeing was far higher for those who worked remotely for at least a month (since March), those in full-time secure employment, people whose leaders were more accessible and listened, and those in workplaces that implemented practical actions to improve mental health and wellbeing. 

In fact, the number of positive actions that workplaces implement is related to worker’s mental health and wellbeing in two ways: Investing in workplace mental health by taking positive action not only improves workers’ health outcomes, but it also appears to be a protective factor that helps people deal more effectively with stressful events.

The greater number of tangible workplace mental health and wellbeing actions that a workplace takes:

  • The more workers feel supported and enjoy their job;
  • The less people attribute their mental health condition to work-related injury (i.e. work caused or made their condition worse);
  • The less mental health stigma experienced by the workforce;
  • The less people feel distressed in their workplace;
  • The more staff retention improves;
  • The greater the productivity gains;
  • The higher the score across the five domains – connectedness, culture, capability, leadership and policy; and
  • The higher the overall thriving workplace score.

THE COST OF INACTION ON CASUAL WORKERS

Workplace mental health is a construct of interconnected factors including leadership, connectedness, policies and practices in action, capability and culture. Yet despite the known health benefits of good work, not all work is created equal.

Year-on-year, we have seen a growing proportion of Australia’s workforce be nudged towards insecure, casual work and the rise of the gig economy.

Flexibility for both the worker and employer has some benefits, but this can have enormously damaging impacts to both workers and business outcomes if we don’t consider worker wellbeing.

Even before the pandemic, casual workers were doing it tough. They have consistently been one of Australia’s most vulnerable and impacted groups of workers and are the furthest from thriving. Worryingly, the year on year survey results show this gap is continuing to widen.

This is particularly noticeable in workplace culture, where full- and part-time workers experienced strong improvements over the last year, while casual workers reported disturbingly low outcomes. Across organisations of all sizes, casual workers report that fewer actions are being taken in their current workplace to support and improve workplace mental health, and many can’t even access these services, unlike their permanently employed colleagues.

A higher proportion of casual workers have also experienced a decline in their mental health since the pandemic emerged. The statistics show that casual workers are being treated with less respect and courtesy and feel less connected and part of a team.

THE NEW WORK COMMUNITY

A key positive coming from the pandemic is the surge in the sense of shared purpose. Workplaces are increasingly feeling like communities where people support each other beyond getting the job done.

It has been said that this pandemic is resulting in the biggest psychological experiment of all time, and I agree. This applies not only to our personal mental wellbeing experiences, but also our experiences at work. 

The impact of 2020 on Australia’s workplaces and workers has been profound. It has forced us to pivot quickly and adapt our ways of working. In a year that has introduced ‘social distancing’ as both a behavioural norm and requirement, we now approach the one year mark of working from home policies.

Many businesses pivoted overnight, going from the office to working remotely, but with the unpredictable nature of lockdowns, the way back into the office is going to be anything but a straight path.

Employers are going to need to take the time to understand how people feel about going back to the office, whether they felt safe, both from a mental and physical health perspective.

Time usually spent getting ready for work, commuting and attending unnecessary meetings is instead spent with loved ones, exercising, pursuing personal interests or getting more sleep – all known factors to improve wellbeing and increase productivity.
Employee wellbeing starts at the top

COVID-19 has turbocharged leadership changes at Australian workplaces, particularly at organisations that are taking tangible action to improve workplace mental health and wellbeing. 

Leaders who are open and approachable, practice self- reflection and act with integrity and balanced judgement are more likely to foster higher levels of inclusiveness, engagement, commitment, performance and wellbeing in their organisations.

Effective leadership increases worker morale, resilience and trust, and decreases worker frustration and conflict. Under good leadership, workers have higher wellbeing and reduced sick leave. 

Workplace leaders really stepped up in the last year. In particular, leaders are being far more proactive in visibly encouraging and promoting good mental health policies and practices – and this should be the benchmark moving forward.

CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

If we continue to take a myopic, economically-focused lens to designing and creating jobs, we are ignoring what people need and want from a job. We need to recognise psychological and wellbeing needs and design jobs and workplaces accordingly. 

People need security, positive connections, good work and they need to be kept safe. 

After a decade of working with businesses of all shapes and sizes, helping them to create mentally healthy, sustainable workplaces, we have quantified evidence of the actions that make the biggest positive difference. Many are free or low cost, and take little time to implement.

Regularly educating people leaders about mental health and wellbeing, providing all workers with access to mental health information, having effective and visible policies and practices in place against workplace bullying and harassment, and recognising and rewarding people who do good work are just some of the actions that work.

So yes, this year let’s create more jobs. But let’s create good, healthy, secure jobs in mentally healthy workplaces, and switch on Australia’s secret weapon for economic and social prosperity.  

Margo Lydon is chief executive of SuperFriend.




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