Australia: Cabbage Salad and Safety: Episode 1 – Resilience and psychological health

Cabbage Salad and Safety is a series of podcasts based around conversations with Siobhan Flores-Walsh, a work health and safety lawyer with Corrs Chambers Westgarth, and Kevin Jones, a workplace safety consultant and editor of the award-winning SafetyAtWorkBlog. Each episode will focus on one or two safety topics.

Episode one includes a discussion about workplace psychological health and responses to it, including Resilience training and potential offered by using the National Standard of Canada's " Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace Standard".

We welcome enquiries and comments about the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast, so please send them to Siobhan or Kevin.


Podcast – Cabbage Salad and Safety

Episode One: Resilience and Psychological Health

Conversation between:

Siobhan Flores-Walsh (Workplace Health & Safety Lawyer) and Kevin Jones (Safety Journalist)


Siobhan: Hi everyone, this is Cabbage Salad and Safety. I'm Siobhan Flores-Walsh, a safety lawyer and with me is Kevin Jones, well known safety journalist.

Kevin: Well thanks, my head has just gone really big Siobhan. Thanks very much.

We are here talking about safety, because we believe that a safety lawyer and a safety professional talking about safety is the best mix of information to provide.

Siobhan: That's absolutely right Kevin. Now, the name Kevin – where did you come up with that?

Kevin: We caught up earlier this year at some trendy café down the road. I don't know what I ate, but I remember you had a cabbage salad. When I pitched the idea of the podcast, it seemed to me that we were stuck for a name and cabbage salad seemed to be a good one. So Cabbage Salad and Safety it is!

Siobhan: So today we are going to talk about psychological safety in the workplace.

Kevin: Well I think this has always been really interesting. People have really struggled with this, to such an extent that I know from my time in safety that this issue regularly comes up.

There's often a statement or a campaign for putting the age back in safety and it's a major problem because age was never out of safety – we just ignored it. We ignored it for lots of reasons, like it wasn't important at the time, or we didn't quite understand the psychology and the organisational stuff that is required for modern management.

I think Health and Safety people sort of left a gap, and there was a bit of a vacuum in this. It's taken probably 20 years of Health and Safety law where people have said –"oh what about the psycho social – what about the bullying – what about the stress – what about the" all of that sort of stuff, and so there has been a real influx of new non-safety, non-health or non-safety people coming in and sort of saying "oh we have got some psychological health solutions".

One of the most annoying things for me has been resilience, because it just doesn't seem to fit the OHS principles. It's causing me confusion, I think it's causing the profession confusion and I think some of businesses are pretending or believing that this is a solution. I think it's causing some problems.

Siobhan: I think you're right. I was asked to sit on a Panel the other day which was about building resilience in workplaces and on the Panel with me were two really competent psychologists. But they were quite put out when I really had to say to the audience that resilience was not an answer to meeting their Work Health and Safety duties in relation to psychological health in the workplace.

Because, in fact, resilience training is sometimes part of the solution but on its own it can actually be quite harmful.

So a lot of the feedback from those who put through resilience training said they feel like they're being blamed for the fact that they're finding it difficult to cope in what are very changed working environments. I think a really key issue is that we need to go back to tin tacks in terms of psychological health, instead of jumping in with things like resilience training and wellness and whatever, you know, whatever the next flavour of the month is.

We need to go back to the fact that you have got to assess risks to psychological health in the workplace.

Kevin: I think it was Worksafe Victoria who recently released a guidance – it was an employer's guide to psycho social hazards. And I found the most interesting thing about it was that it made no mention of resilience, no mention of mindfulness, and no mention of individual coping strategies.

The emphasis was on organisational structures, workloads, due diligence, and a few other things like that. So it said more about the psycho-social hazards by permission than it did by what it was talking about. I think I'll take up one of your phases that you just mentioned, which is that a lot people who undergo resilience training, or companies that do it, the training doesn't always fit the people, and they feel like they're weak, or that they're not coping, and that the problem is them.

Certainly Work Safe Victoria seems to indicate that that is not the case, but it does tie back to a Health and Safety text book in Victoria I remember – I have forgotten the name of it now – but it was a handbook and it had a whole chapter on blaming the worker and how that went out of fashion. That phrase disappeared outside of the Trade Union movement, but it is a significant consideration when we are looking at psycho social control measures.

There is variation in people, we need to acknowledge that and so one approach doesn't necessarily address everybody in your workforce.

Siobhan: Look I think that's right, but we are still going to have to go back to the fact that you need assistance to deal with any particular set of risks in a workplace.

So it is really hard to get individual bespoke responses I suppose.

I think what we really need to do is to go back and look at what the law actually says is required in this space. Unfortunately, the law requires an analysis of the factors within a particular workplace culture which may be leading to stresses and strains on workers and that are causing psychological injury in ways that they previously didn't cause injury. And then once that's identified you get into appropriate controls for a particular workplace.

I think someone described it to me as "this is a more difficult pathway than you know buying a resilience training off the shelf, or the wellness package of the shelf."

But it's the only pathway to delivering a sustained response to what is really a huge issue, given the fact that we have got Workers Compensation Claims in this State going through the roof.

Kevin: I think one of the responses that the listeners may have is when I say there is a vacuum.

Certainly there was a vacuum in Health and Safety. But I think our listeners from the Human Resources sector will maybe be yelling at their radios and their headphones saying "no I am always dealing with this, you know we have always had this on our agenda" and I wonder if Workplace Health and Safety is a bit late into it.

And particularly because in the legal sector there is HR and it has pathways that are not necessarily Health and Safety ones. Are we encroaching on their turf?

Siobhan: That's an interesting way of putting it. No, I actually think sort of quite the contrary in a way.

I do think that HR practitioners have had to deal with the consequences of this issue not being dealt with. I don't think the issues were actually recognised as a health issue, that was probably the disconnect, and it's really just in recent history we have seen the response to bullying.

So what we had is the anti-bullying jurisdiction of the Fair Work Commission which has proven to be a complete non-starter in this space. It's done absolutely nothing to deal with the issues, but it is very much an HR Employment Law response.

And of course it's been inadequate because it's only dealing with the consequences of what's going on in workplace culture. You know the risks to people's psychological health. It's dealing with the issue once it's actually become an injury in effect.

So it's dealing with the tip of the iceberg, as I like to think of it, where in fact all of the causes are rumbling under there in workplace culture, and changes in how we perform work when it intensifies - the risk is enormous.

Kevin: I think that is one of the interesting things from the research, and the Work Safe guidances talk a lot about excess workload. There has always been a cause, it is a contributing factor for stress and a whole range of things.

Confidence into – was it – overtime, unpaid overtime and working hours and whole range of things and the quality of the jobs that we do.

It sort of strikes me as odd that workload just hasn't got the prominence in most industries, as I think it needs to as a cause of psychological issues. I have to say though, in the legal fraternity I think it getting an enormous amount of attention mainly because you guys, you know, work such long hours and make such enormous incomes.

Siobhan: We won't go there.

Kevin: I know that the legal fraternity has put in place programs and structures and they have looked at this. They have seen it as an issue, they still struggling with it, but they have actually recognised there is an issue. Not a lot of industries do that.

Siobhan: Look I think law is looking at it, and it has to look at it because the acknowledged rates of depression of the legal industry have been so very high and there have unfortunately been a few catastrophic consequences.

So it is trying to deal with it, but to address your question of why hasn't this issue of workload and excess hours received more prominence? It's because of the business models that we are all operating under.

So law firms are restructuring themselves. We are all in the structured economy but the fact of the matter is that it's very hard to undo old business models, and I think that's what happening in the rest of society as well.

We all thought that we would be moving into a time by now where we had lots more leisure, and technology was going to, you know, reduce our workloads, but in fact all of us are working longer than we ever have.

So there is this sort of dissidence out there between lots of health measures and go off and do yoga and everything else. Whereas in fact we are all lucky if we have got clean underwear by Friday.

Kevin: Yes, we are recording this on Thursday, so that is a sensitive topic to me.

Siobhan: There's a lot around.

Kevin: There are.


Kevin: You're listening to Cabbage Salad and Safety.

Siobhan, earlier you were talking about the need for a structured approach to look at psycho social issues. Is there is a structure around, is there something we can use?

Siobhan: There is and there are really two ways that this can be done.

I think there is the easy way and there is the hard way. Let's get rid of the hard way first. The hard way says that you need to risk assess what's going on in your workforce and identify controls in order to, you know, try and mitigate reduce the extent to which workers are being exposed to psychological risk.

There is a lot of hard work in that, and in the physical space we have got years of that work behind us in Australia. We don't in respect of psychological safety. But fortunately the Canadians have done a lot of work in this area and they have produced the Canadian Voluntary Standard in relation to psychological health and the standard is a fulsome document which sets out the psychological factors which need to be looked at. They provide a very structured approach in order to put in place systems.

Kevin: Yes but it's a voluntary standard. I mean voluntary quite often in Health and Safety means you can pay attention to if you want to but you don't have to.

Siobhan: Yes.

Kevin: Why should we pay attention to something that the Canadians have done that's voluntary?

Siobhan: Yes. Well look there is two issues there. The standard in Canada is voluntary. But in Australia let's get back to what the duty is and there is a mandatory duty to ensure that you are taking all steps reasonably practicable to not expose workers to risks to health to safety.

So there is that absolute duty here in Australia and in fact to breach it is a criminal offence. The voluntary issue over there is that the Canadians have a different structure and it's available on a voluntary basis, but the content of this is superb and it is easily picked up by us here in Australia.

It just means that people don't have to reinvent the wheel. I think there is the added bonus that culturally we are actually quite similar to the Canadians, they are kind of that mix between the Americans and the English, and I think we fall into that as well.

Kevin: I think for the benefit of listeners, it is worth locating the Standard. If you look at Psychological Standard, Mental Health Commission, you will likely get to it. It is free to download and I noticed the other day that they have also released a handbook.

Siobhan: Yes.

Kevin: That sort of is a bit more plain English. So it is really interesting to look at. But to take up your point on law. I suppose that it fits into our obligation to have the best state of knowledge on Health and Safety that we can and here is a formalised element that we can use for our state of knowledge.

Just because it's not from Australia or Victoria or Queensland.

Siobhan: No, that's right.

Kevin: Doesn't mean we should ignore it.

Siobhan: No absolutely. The Canadians have a lot of good information in this space. I also think that the UK agency website is worth a good look. But it is important, I suppose, to understand what's mandatory and what's not mandatory.

Here in Australia it is an obligation on the part of employers to ensure to the extent that is reasonably practicable the health and safety of their workers, but also others as well.

So there is this whole obligation to people with whom we don't even have a workplace relationship. So that's out there to be considered. That's the mandatory bit.

What amounts to taking all steps reasonably practicable is what people don't understand. And what I say to my clients is have a look at the standard, because I think that's about as close to reasonably practicable as you are going to find if you like it in a comprehensive state.

Kevin: It sounds really good. One of the things that I liked about it is that it's an auditable standard.

So it's got common elements to our existing standards and the 45,000s or whatever there is at the moment. So it's actually something that you could place as part of your assurance programme.

And your OHS lead auditors shouldn't be that unfamiliar with the elements that they can't actually add it on to a 4801 health and safety management.

Siobhan: I think that's right. It's structurally really familiar to what our safety people do here and I think it's also something which the ports would be able to engage with quite easily.

It sort of picks up on your point; it's a different country. Perhaps a slightly different culture but very familiar to those of us here in Australia.

Kevin: You're listening to Cabbage Salad and Safety.

So we've talked about the problem, the hazard, the challenge. We've also made a couple of suggestions about what people can do about it.

What recommendation would you give to your clients, but also just the broad range of businesses that Australia has, what do you reckon they should do?

Siobhan: Well looking at it with the lawyer's hat, I'd say make sure that you are complying with the law in this space. And to do that, I think the first thing is to recognise that you actually have a legal duty to ensure the health and safety, the psychological health and safety of your workers.

And I don't think that's actually fully understood. Having understood that, then I think people need to look around for the best possible mechanisms that they can use in order to fulfil their legal duty and without reinventing the wheel I do think that the Canadian standard is the best place to start.

Kevin: Yes, I think it is a very good place to start. I think my advice to clients would be to question. Health and safety is notorious for fads and fashions and very rarely trends.

And to a large extent, I think there's a lot of fads around at the moment about wellness, mindfulness, well-being and a whole range of things. So I think it's probably worth just being sceptical and asking for results and, this sounds terrific. It sounds like it fits our company demands but could you show us how it's changed some of your previous clients. It's a bit like if you have a builder building a house you say "Look, can you show me one you've built before?" I think we should – it's not necessarily scepticism. It's a bit of quality assurance.

Siobhan: I think that's right, Kevin. I think I take probably a more structured approach to it in the way that there's a clear legal duty. I agree with everything you say but I think people really need to have a look at what do they need to do to fulfil the duty and then they'll find that picking the resilience training off the shelf alone is not going to do it for them.

So if they look at something like the Canadian standard, it will set out what needs to be done and people will be relieved to find it does include things like resilience training and it does include things like wellness programmes but they're part of a structure that fits together.

At the moment what we've got are lots of pieces of the jigsaw on the table and a lot of them aren't fitting together.

Kevin: I think – hearing what you just said, that mixing up of structure and struggle, is sort of why we thought this podcast would be a good idea.

The contrast of legal structure and OHS professional confusion. But it's exactly the mix that businesses have.

Siobhan: That's right. I mean when we go into workplaces we realise that we're often giving clients advice which is a little bit impractical to be honest, and this is probably the hardest area to deal with.

We're actually dealing with people's emotions in the workplace. And that's why it's such a fascinating area.

Kevin: Okay. Thanks very much for listening to Cabbage Salad and Safety.

Thanks Siobhan.

Siobhan: Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin: If you've got any comments please drop us a line, let us know and we hope to hear from you soon.

Siobhan: This podcast does not give legal or other professional advice and its content should not be relied upon as such. Formal legal and other professional advice should be sought in particular matters.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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