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Job cuts: there is more than money to consider according to one occupational health expert

Cutbacks in the federal public service and the uncertainty surrounding many peoples’ jobs are likely to have significant health ramifications, according to an occupational health expert, Professor Niki Ellis.

Niki Ellis writes:

Recently there have been two articles in Fairfax newspapers about the health impact of job cuts.  On November 7, The Canberra Times published an account  of the restructure of the Department of Health in which ‘up to a third of some Divisions’, mostly in Canberra, will be axed.

Three days later the Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece  about a survey released by the Australian Psychological Society which showed that one in seven Australians experienced severe to extremely severe depressive symptoms, with over half citing the cause as job-related stress.

According to the SMH, the survey ‘found a significant decline in workplace wellbeing (compared to previous surveys) with workers being driven to despair as more pressure is put on increasing productivity and jobs become increasingly insecure’.

Job insecurity has been recognised as a potent occupational stressor for some time. In economic down turns the threat of losing your job rises, creating uncertainty for many, and unemployment for some.

In my lifetime, employment has changed from whole careers being provided by a single organisation, to today where younger people expect to have several careers, let alone jobs, with many employers, one of whom is increasingly likely to be themselves.  Along with that has come a greater resilience about job insecurity.

Nevertheless an imposed loss of work during an economic downturn is a threat, especially if you are an older worker with skills that do not match the needs of the new knowledge economy.

In recent years attention has turned to the people in precarious employment, those who have casual employment, and live constantly with job insecurity.

A study that compared casual and permanent employees in two hotels found that ‘casuals were more likely to work highly irregular hours over which they had little control’, resulting in disruption to family and social lives and sleep disturbance, fatigue, disrupted exercise and diet .

The UK Health and Safety Executive published voluntary workplace health and safety standards in 2005, which provide guidance on identifying, assessing and controlling six psychosocial risk factors.

Three of these arise from job design: demand (workload), control (extent to which you have the opportunity to make decisions in your job) and support (training and resources to do the job).  And three are related to people management: role (extent to which your role is clearly defined and you receive feedback on your performance), relationships (most importantly that you receive supportive supervision) and change (how well change is managed, this is where job insecurity comes in) .

People respond differently to working environments with high levels of psychosocial risk factors – some cope better than others, as is the case with physical risk factors.

However, the greater the occupational stressors in the working environment, usually measured by surveying workers, the greater the number of people who will experience negative health effects.

In the short term people experience acute stress responses:  changes in behaviour at work and at home, disruption to sleep, rise in heart rate and blood pressure are examples.  It is normal for us all to be strained for short periods in our lives, and we recover well.

However, if uncertainty at work continues for a long period of time, say a year or more, then there is a risk of serious illness including coronary heart disease, mental ill-health, musculoskeletal disorders and probably type 2 diabetes.

We now know that around two-thirds of the ill-health arising from occupational stress arises because of the direct effect of the stressors on the body, ie increasing heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, release of glucose, and one-third is due to unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking and eating too much, not exercising, and consuming more cigarettes and illicit drugs.

Stressful working environments are associated with higher levels of absenteeism, compensation claims and “presenteeism” (at work, but performance below par).

Attitudes in the private sector to workforce management in economic downturns appear to be changing, influenced by the talent wars.

Past experience has shown Australian employers that the loss of skills associated with a severe shedding of staff has put them at a disadvantage when the economy turns around.  In recent downturns we have seen more nuanced approaches, eg asking all staff to work a bit less – something the Qantas maintenance staff at Geelong put on the table before the decision to close their centre was taken.

One of the problems I often have when assisting workplaces with occupational stress is that often a short-term view of productivity overrides a longer-term view.  If retention of skills, quality, workers’ compensation claims rates, absenteeism and performance are measured and taken into account, then efforts to create good work pay off.

However, the most enlightened approach to managing job insecurity I have ever experienced was from the public service.  In the 1990s I was asked by a custodial service, about to privatise some prisons, if I could help them minimise the adverse health impact of this strategy.  We set about creating certainty in an uncertain world.

I have to say the worst brief I ever took was also from the public service.  It took two suicides attributed to pressure from work before management took action, and then pretty half-heartedly.

In Europe there is a growing obligation on employers to take into account the impact on the community of their employment decisions.

The current Federal Government has clearly considered political and financial criteria in their decision to significantly cut jobs in Canberra.

Have they considered the health and related social implications?  The productivity of the Australian Public Service in longer term? Should they?

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