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Dyson Speech To Society of Occupational Medicine

Hon Ruth Dyson
Friday, 29 September 2000, 1.00pm Speech Notes

Opening of the Annual Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine

George Hotel, Christchurch

Thank you for inviting me to open your conference. I am especially pleased to see that your theme is stress in the workplace, because it's an issue that needs a lot of promotion and debate.

Stress is still perceived by many as a sign of weakness, which in turn can threaten job security, which is no doubt one of the reasons why it has been to a large extent an invisible issue. There isn't a great deal of data available on stress in the New Zealand workplace, though there is mounting anecdotal evidence, as well reports from similar societies overseas, that suggests stress in the workplace is becoming an increasingly significant issue.

We can no longer afford to ignore it.

Stress symptoms range from the seemingly minor, such as constant tiredness, irritability and difficulties in switching off from work, through to the life threatening, such as alcohol and drug abuse, depression and heart disease.
Stress also contributes to accidents and to aggressive behaviour, which then starts a vicious cycle.

Two violence prevention counsellors told a recent occupational health and safety conference in Rotorua that workplace conflict was one of the major causes of on-the-job stress.

Of course, there is no such thing as a stress-free life. Everyone is exposed to daily pressures and most people cope with moderate amounts without suffering ill effects. In the right circumstances, the surge of adrenalin can be positively stimulating. Concentration is heightened and performance improves.

It is when pressures pile up that control is lost. Coping mechanisms break down and negative stress results.

Stress at work can be caused by being under-employed as well as being over-worked. Many of the stress factors are well known: job insecurity, rapid change, difficulties with the boss, powerlessness, poor morale, long working hours, balancing home and work, and so on. Many of these issues have become commonplace over recent years.

There are also huge costs in dollar terms. In the UK, it is reckoned that 40 million working days are lost every year due to stress, costing businesses more than 500 pounds per employee. Translated to New Zealand that would equate to more than $3 billion in sick pay, poor performance and missed deadlines.
That doesn't even take into account the costs to our health and social services and the intangible costs to the community.

Clearly, it is in the interests of employers, as well as workers and the Government - and indeed society generally - that we do all we can to reduce stress.

The Government's response to stress is part of a wider programme to promote safer and more productive workplaces. To this end we are encouraging cooperation and collaboration among all interested parties, recognising that the aim of safer workplaces – including, as much as possible, stress-free workplaces - is everybody's business and is in everybody's interest.

A key part of this programme is the Employment Relations Act, which comes into effect on Monday.

The ERA will restore the balance in industrial relations which has been missing in the last 10 years.

The previous Government's Employment Contracts Act was not a balanced piece of legislation. It treated the employment relationship as nothing more than a commercial contract, ignoring the workplace reality that employers and employees are people. It has led to increased casualisation of the workforce, job insecurity, low wages, under-employment for some and heavy workloads for others. In other words, many of the factors which we know contribute to stress and all its by-products.
The fundamental premise underlying the Employment Relations Act is that the employment relationship is a human relationship, not just a contractual, or economic one. Human relationships that function well and efficiently are based on mutual trust, confidence and fair dealing. That requires that the relationship is based on a reasonable equality between the parties.

Workers and employers must be able to work together and deal with each other with mutual trust and respect.

Apart from anything else, this can only be good for the workplace stress levels.

Another key part of our programme to make workplaces safer and less stressful is the rebuilding of the ACC scheme. The Government has already signalled its plans to put injury prevention back where it belongs – as the first priority in the new scheme. Rehabilitation will be the second priority, followed by compensation. In the past, these priorities were the wrong way round.

As you know, the passing of the Accident Insurance (Transitional Provisions) Bill earlier this year removed private insurance companies from the workplace accident coverage, reinstated ACC as the single state scheme, and outlined the regime for providing an alternative to the experience rating system.

Under a new voluntary regime called the Workplace Safety Management Practices Programme, employers may receive a discount on their premiums if they can demonstrate good safety management systems.

In other words it rewards employers for injury prevention, rather than penalising them for accidents.

This approach avoids the problems of the experience rating system, which creates financial incentives to under-report accidents, encourages litigation. It also penalises the employer – particularly the small employer – when a workplace accident occurs despite the employer having done everything possible to reduce workplace hazards.

Our approach provides financial incentives for employers to create safer places of work. The wisest employers already appreciate that minimising workplace stress helps to reduce workplace hazards. Others have still got a lot to learn but I am confident that with the new emphasis on injury prevention and much greater collaboration between employers and employees, we will start to see a shift.

The injury prevention and rehabilitation focus will be reinforced in a new ACC Bill, to be introduced before the end of the year.

This Bill will be open to public submissions. I urge you to study it and send in your comments. We would be especially keen to receive your input on the injury prevention and rehabilitation aspects.
In addition to these measures, we are also reviewing the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

While the HSE Act has proved to be reasonably effective in improving health and safety at work, it still needs to do better. The legislation has only a very weak requirement for employee involvement, for example.

The Act's risk assessment approach put issues of cost to the forefront but gives employers little incentive to spend money improving safety.

The requirements for the Minister to consult over national and industry standards is also very weak. Moreover, only the state can lay prosecutions. In those senses it is paternalistic in design.

The current legislation provides for codes of practice and regulations to be promulgated after consultation with interested parties. These may apply as minima at the industry level, or nationally across all worksites.
The Government intends to retain such provisions, and use them, but we will require a change in practice so that relevant industry sector organisations, workers’ committees, unions, industry training organisations and other stakeholder groups are actively involved.

Of course, no matter what incentives and support are offered to businesses there will always be a need for an enforcement regime. The review will look at whether the Act can, or should include spot fines, whether the level of fines under the Act is high enough and whether OSH’s sole right to prosecute under the Act should be extended to others.

Stress mangement is difficult to codify, though I know that my colleague Margaret Wilson, who is overseeing the review, is concerned that some employers do not appear to regard stress as an issue which they should address as part of their obligations under the HSE Act. This follows some recent successful court cases, such as that of the former probation officer, whose work, the court found was excessive in volume and complexity, which he was required to carry out without sufficient support, resources and supervision.

Margaret Wilson has signalled her intention to introduce a framework into the Act to ensure that in future people don't need to go to court to get compensation for stress-related illness. I support that wholeheartedly.

Employers as a rule need to be assessing the risks of exposure to stress, taking reasonable steps to avoid or reduce it, and introducing stress management training. These steps are seldom excessively expensive and can cut the hefty costs of stress-related illness and improve employee morale and motivation.

To ensure the most effective result of the HSE Act review, input from employer and employee organisations will be crucial. Extensive consultation is planned over the coming months so that the Government’s decisions will be based on the best information available.

A draft document detailing the proposed changes is scheduled to be drawn up by the end of the year, with amendments likely to be introduced to Parliament early next year.

In recent years some industry sectors have established safety and health promotion and education agencies, in part to reduce accident and illness and in part to secure the often significant productivity gains that flow. Where these have wider support of the employers and employees within an industry, we will offer encouragement and financial assistance as appropriate.

Improving injury prevention activities – along with better coordination of data - will be a continuous process. And injury surveillance systems need to be developed to help improve our capabilities to adopt a more strategic approach to prevention.
We are making a start with our policy changes, but I don't under-estimate the challenges ahead.

Perhaps the most important component which underlies all these policies is the promotion of attitudinal change. The aim is for employers and employees to become more safety conscious, to work together collaboratively on all issues affecting workers' welfare. These changes will in turn reduce the stigma associated with stress.

Which brings me back to where I began. The more we get to debate and understand this issue, the less stigmatised it will be, and the more likely it will be that on-the-job stress gets addressed properly in New Zealand's workplaces.
I wish you well for your conference. And I would be grateful if you would send me copies of the papers being presented here, as well as a summary of the points raised in the discussions.

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