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Strengthen your business by good work design

Professor Niki Ellis

Presented by: Professor Niki Ellis (Occupational and public health physician, NE&A Pty. Ltd.)

Run time: 6:42

Download a copy of this podcast (MP3, 9 MB)

Strengthen your business by good work design

Presented by: Professor Niki Ellis

[Start of transcript]

Anthony Frangi: Professor Niki Ellis is an occupational and public health physician and one of the speakers here at the Work health and wellbeing forum 2019. Professor Niki Ellis, welcome.

Professor Niki Ellis: Hello.

Anthony Frangi: Why should we address chronic disease risks in the workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis: Well, I think that they're becoming a very important part of the profile that people are seeing in workplaces. Previously, we were really focused on injuries that occurred in workplaces, but now chronic illnesses are the conditions which take up most of our time. These are the conditions that the workers have to bear, so our profiles, our health profiles have changed.

Anthony Frangi:  When we talk about chronic illnesses, what are we talking about?

Professor Niki Ellis: Well, the ones that are really obvious are musculoskeletal disorders and mental health conditions, and we know that they form the most frequent reasons for absenteeism, whether it's compensable or non-compensable. But I think there are other conditions that we've underestimated in terms of the relationship to work. So, for example, we know that stress contributes to cardiovascular disease, we know that stress can also contribute to Type 2 diabetes, and we know that a small proportion of cancer is due to occupational factors. So we've really put all of this into the "too hard" basket for a long time, and we've run out of road. Mental health has really brought this to the fore, and we need to think slightly differently about how we manage health in the workplace.

Anthony Frangi:  Mental health is a particular problem among young people today, isn't it?

Professor Niki Ellis: Well, mental health is a problem amongst all age groups, but it's a big problem, it's very prevalent amongst young people.

Anthony Frangi:  Why do we need to focus on work health and wellbeing? Because it can be a problem wherever we go, whether it's at home mainly, but why should... Why the workplace today?

Professor Niki Ellis: Well, it's win-win. We now know there's really good evidence that if employers invest in health and wellbeing programmes that are very well designed, then they will see the benefits, as well as the workforce seeing the benefits, as well as the broader community seeing the benefits. And the benefits that employers will see are gains in productivities associated with reduction in injury rates. I know, why would being healthy reduce injury rates? We don't really know why. Also, reduction in absenteeism, increased engagement, increases in quality, all of that contributing to an increase in productivity. But also, society's expectations are changing, and we know now that society is looking more closely at how workplaces, how companies contribute to society, and they have an expectation that they will be caring for the health of the workforce.

Anthony Frangi:  We know that the focus is most of the time on our staff, but what about supervisors, managers, coordinators, CEOs, managing directors? How do we get the message through to them?

Professor Niki Ellis: Well, if we don't get the message through to them, it won't work, because the interesting thing about this more complex environment is that it has to be a strategic investment. We need to have the compliance with workplace health and safety law, which we've always had. That doesn't go away. We still expect employers to accept that responsibility, but now we're saying, "Hey, employers, you can also get some extra benefits if you invest beyond that." And we're not going to get that to work unless we have even more engagement from leaders than we've had in the past.

Anthony Frangi:  Is it hard to monitor all staff and how they might be staying healthy?

Professor Niki Ellis: Yes, I mean, it's an extra thing that has to be done, but it's not hard to find out what issues the workforce are concerned about. That's quite easy to do, and I think that we don't do that very well at the moment. So I think that a first step is actually finding out what are the issues people are concerned about, and you might find out they're different to the ones that you've been focusing on. So, fatigue might be higher than you imagine. That's often the case. People are definitely going to be worried about mental health, and probably your programme up until now has not done very much about that. So, that's a good starting point.

Anthony Frangi:  Do the health risks vary from place to place, from workplace to workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis: Yeah, they do, and that's why I think that it's important to actually ask the workforce what are the most important issues for them, because they're going to be the drivers. It's going to be win-win. They're going to be the drivers of productivity gains, working with the issues that are really, really important to that workforce and to that business. And that can depend on the nature of work and the nature of the hazards, but it can also depend on the demographics of that workforce, or even where it is located. There's a number of factors.

Anthony Frangi:  How do we start a conversation in the workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis: Starting a conversation is really starting to talk about, "What are the health issues that are important to you, and what are we doing now that you think works well, and what are we doing now that you think could work better?" And of all the bits and pieces that are all over the shop because they're all in different silos, let's bring those people together and start talking about what we're trying to achieve in the bigger picture. So, that can be done with a combination of meetings of relevant streams coming together and having a conversation, probably for the first time. It can be through surveys or focus groups with different people. And it's got to be led from the top. It's got to be... You've got to create an environment where people know that their contributions are going to be valued.

Anthony Frangi:  What are the risks of it becoming too personal, too private, if someone is in a situation in the workplace where they have a significant health risk, and the expectation is for the workplace to help them as much as they can?

Professor Niki Ellis: I think that privacy is a big issue, and we know, particularly with regard to mental health, that people feel the stigma and people are very... There's many cases where people have been reluctant to speak about their concerns in the workplace, so you have to work hard to create a safe environment where people are going to be trusting enough to offer that kind of information up. At the session today, we heard a wonderful case study from Peter Gould from Redland City Council, and I really liked that idea that he had of sensitive reporting, the fact that you might be able to raise some issues in a secure private way for example if you’re just starting out. But we do know where you get the culture change and where you get people feeling that they are working in an environment where people care about their health and wellbeing and want to do everything they can to make them healthier, then people become more comfortable.

Anthony Frangi:  Culture change is one of those phrases, or sentences, or words that we often hear in the workplace. How do we maintain that momentum though?

Professor Niki Ellis:  You have to really mean it. You have to have the commitment, has to be real, and it has to go right though the organisation, and then you have to be measuring it and demonstrating what the gains are, you have to be prepared if somethings not working to stop that and to rethink that.So you can achieve that over a longer time if you’re in to a continuous improvement kind of mode and if you really mean it and if you don’t really mean it, if it’s just ‘we do flu vacs and we have fruit baskets’, well forget it.

Anthony Frangi:  Fruit baskets were all the rage at one point.

Professor Niki Ellis: Yeah, and they’ve become to symbolise that kind of token effort which is what we’re not talking about so people make quite scathing jokes about those and of course, fruit baskets in their place, along with everything else, along with changes to the environment, along with making sure you got a very solid safety foundation, they’re fine, but its where you’ve just got the flu vacs and the fruit basket.

Anthony Frangi:  What are you seeing internationally, and maybe nationally too, in regard to workplace approaches for managing work health and wellbeing?

Professor Niki Ellis: I’m seeing finally and thank heavens I’m so delighted I first wrote about the integrated approach in a book in 2001, published in 2001 a long time ago and that was based on research done in the 90s. We are finally seeing these ideas take fruition and I think it’s because of mental health. I think mental health finally made everybody in workplaces realise that looking at this in a fairly simplistic way of just the work-related risk factors alone, is not going to get us to where we need to be.

Anthony Frangi:  What about the sheer environment in a workplace? I see a lot of workers today standing up, sometimes up to seven or eight hours, they may take a break at lunchtime and morning and afternoon tea – is that a good start?

Professor Niki Ellis: Looking at a particular risk factor and expecting to get a big result from just looking at a single issue is not the way to go. So the only way it’s going to go is if you start by finding out what the issues that are important to this business, what are the issues that are important to this workforce and then dealing with those.So if one of those turns out to be sedentary work and its highly likely that would be a concern because most people have read about that now, that can be a good part of a solution but probably not a total solution.

Anthony Frangi:  You’ve been in this line of work for some time now, I won’t say how many years.

Professor Niki Ellis: It’s my birthday on Wednesday, so it’s plus one.

Anthony Frangi:  Plus one ha ha. Are you happy with the progression in the workplace where we’re starting to see change whether it is walking around the block, whether it is raising the issues, whether its talking to staff about what they’d like to see and what they want to focus on, are you happy with the progress that’s been made in many places?

Professor Niki Ellis: There’s a yes and a no to this answer, so the yes that I’m very happy to see the integration of health and wellbeing in to occupational health and safety and I think that is starting to happen in a serious way, starting to happen. In a serious way and I’m pleased to see that. However, I think that the recent report by Safe Work Australia on the future of workplace health and safety, has really shown up, which was done in partnership with CSRIO and I think is a very good report, has shown up we’ve got some big challenges ahead with the changing work from automation and the gig economy and I’m not sure we’re changing fast enough to meet those challenges.

Anthony Frangi:  And what we mean by the gig economy is casual work, part time work, full time work?

Professor Niki Ellis: Yeah we mean people who become self-employed and work for a number of different organisations.

Anthony Frangi:  Public versus private – is there much of a difference in what you’re seeing?

Professor Niki Ellis: I’m seeing at the moment, which is good that the public sector is showing some leadership in this area. So they understand the integrated approach I think that for the public sectors the office environment is particularly important so mental health is important and the integrated approach is really good for mental health. So I think that is probably driving it to some extent, but then as always there’ll be individual leaders in the private sector that just run with it. So, you know, both a bit but not enough – more needed.

Anthony Frangi: More needed – you heard the message!The tool kit was handed out today at the forum, it’s a guide isn’t it, it’s a reference to helping, I guess, to supervisors, managers, anyone in a leadership role, so that they can make that transition, yeah?

Professor Niki Ellis: Absolutely and I can’t emphasise enough if you don’t make this a strategic approach it won’t work, you really got to work across the organisation to find out, make decisions on what you’re going to work on and why you’re doing it and what benefits you expect to see, because you’re asking employers to make an investment on a voluntary basis, so you’re going to expect to see some returns – it’s win-win, good for business and good for the workers, but you have to define in advance what your aims are and what you want to achieve. The tool kit helps you with that.

Anthony Frangi:  And your take-home message to those who were here today and listening to this podcast?

Professor Niki Ellis: My take home message to them would be do it, just do it! We’re starting to see it happen. Be a leader, be an early responder and find others that are experimenting with it and have a go. Use the tool kit!

Anthony Frangi:  Use the tool kit, Professor Niki Ellis, thanks so much for joining us at the 2019 Work health and wellbeing forum here in Brisbane.

Professor Niki Ellis: Thank you very much.