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People at work: The Burstows experience

Workers in the funeral industry are exposed to a number of risk factors that can increase their risk of work-related psychosocial injuries. This film shows how Burstows, a Toowoomba-based funeral home, managed the emotional demands of the job, time pressures and team conflict to minimise these risks to their workers.

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People at Work: The Burstows experience

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: The funeral industry is actually quite a high pressure industry to work in.

IAN NUTLEY: There are, of course, stressors in the job.
You're dealing with families in their most vulnerable times.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: Those psychosocial risks, no matter how small an issue that it might be, within an organisation, for that individual, it can lead to depression and anxiety, and, a lot of stress for them,

ONSCREEN TEXT: In 2008 Burstows undertook the People at Work program

IAN NUTLEY: I was approached on a trial of people at work. And, as an educator, as a person who wants to ensure a good company becomes even a better company, I said, yeah, look, we're prepared to do the trial, so that… if we can help staff, as a by-product of it, if we can become even better than we are… as a by-product of it, why not?

TITLE: People at Work: The Burstows experience

IAN NUTLEY: Burstows are a fourth generation funeral home, since 1900. They are Australian-owned, and the two sons, Trevor and Don still run the company, and still part of the company.
There's about 40 staff in total.

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: The thing that probably stresses me the most about the industry, you want to help everyone; and just feeling helpless to go that step further.

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: Grief takes many forms. So there's some people that are angry. There are some people that are upset. It can be taxing on you when someone your own age or someone you know, some of your school friends, something like that comes through.

Marianne Hanson: You can be going along really well, and then some days, it just hits you, when you just need to go and sit at your desk, and have a silent cry.

ROBYN FRITH: The other thing is, there are pressures on us for time.

ROBYN FRITH: If you imagine that I am a wedding planner, that's exactly what I do, except I only have three days to complete the task. And that's exactly what it's like.

IAN NUTLEY: If we have a funeral at 3 o'clock on such a day, that's exactly what has to happen.

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: In a half hour period, we could have six families call up, and they all want us at the same time, to go and meet with them, to bring their loved ones into our care

ONSCREEN TEXT: People at Work is a process to help identify and respond to work-related stress risks in the workplace.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: With Burstows in particular, one of the things that struck me when we first came out to talk to them about the program was Ian felt that there was some psychosocial risks within the organisation but couldn't really pinpoint any one particular thing.

IAN NUTLEY: You can think things are going on; but when you can prove it, that's a whole different kettle of fish.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: So the survey tool was provided to Burstows, and then they went about surveying their own organisation.

ONSCREEN TEXT: The People at Work survey was implemented to help assess psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

IAN NUTLEY: Back came the results

IAN NUTLEY: It highlighted three areas for potential improvement.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY:And they related to time pressures, the emotional demands of the job, and also team conflict within the organisation.


CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: So, after the survey, we had quite a few changes

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: They're consulting more with their staff.

IAN NUTLEY: We really wanted to know what they were feeling, what they're going through, what they're experiencing;

IAN NUTLEY: We created a branch and department managers meeting

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: We have them every week.

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: Anything that is a potential issue we sort o' get on to it before it happens

IAN NUTLEY: So that was one thing we did. The other thing that came out of it was an evaluation of my leadership style [laughs] ... the famous 360.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: Where the worker gave 'him' feedback on his performance

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: So one of the key things that came out of that 360 feedback, was to restructure the organisation, and in such a way that Ian didn't have so many people reporting to him.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY:In the organisational structure, there was Ian, and then there was all the workers underneath him. So he didn't have any supervisors, or team leaders, or other managers that worked for him.

ROBYN FRITH: But then, we branched out with having each little location having their own manager.

MARIANNE HANSON: That in itself, created more of team work, a cohesiveness that everyone was part of the overall team

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: They made some great efforts to integrate our teams.

MARIANNE HANSON: People know who they need to go to, to have something changed, improved, updated

IAN NUTLEY: It had to be upper management, middle management, staff, all working as a team, to create a, an environment that is a happier, a better, closer team.

IAN NUTLEY: The importance of getting to know your staff, open communication, we really need to learn to create effective communication.

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: We've got training sessions, we have debriefing sessions with one another.

ONSCREEN TEXT: Burstows introduced initiatives to help their staff manage the emotional demands of the job.

ROBYN FRITH: I might be with a very emotional family at the time, but then I can go with my colleagues and we can just really debrief with each other. You know, you've got the best atmosphere around the place.

MARIANNE HANSON: It's a case of allowing them time to literally have time, go outside for a walk, you know just have quiet time, go away for an hour, come back and that in itself repairs them.

CHRISTOPHER STOCKLEY: Burstows integrated a counselling service for its staff and our families.

MARIANNE HANSON: Whether or not it's something to do within work, or if it's something in our private life that is actually causing us stress.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: If people in specific areas needed certain tools or certain processes to be implemented, to be able to do their job better, and in a less stressful way, Burstows went about to provide that to their staff.

PATRICIA ZAVISKY: 12 months later, Burstows underwent, and completed the same survey, those key factors that were identified in the first survey around time pressures, emotional stress, and conflict, were virtually non-existent.

IAN NUTLEY: We ended up with a longer term staff. There was less turnover. A happier, better, closer team.

MARIANNE HANSON: The changes have been observable, you can see it in people's performance, you can see it in people's camaraderie, marked respect for each other.

IAN NUTLEY: Another 360 review was done, and I was probably more apprehensive of it than one than the first one. And the people who co-ordinated it said they'd never seen so much change from the first one to the second one. So, I was very humbled by that. Yes, very humbled.

IAN NUTLEY: It doesn't matter whether, in funeral services or what job it is ... is, management should be really getting to know their staff, and getting to identify what makes them tick, and what's important to them, so that they can get the best out of the staff. Let's make them happy. Let's help them enjoy their work environment.

IAN NUTLEY: People at Work is a, is a very, very important tool to find out what's going on behind the scenes, in the work environment, what the staff are struggling with; and from that, be able to structure a holistic approach to work.

IAN NUTLEY: If you want quality outside, you got to [sic] really deal with folk inside.


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Workplace Health and Safety Queensland thank the following people and organistion for their participation in this film:

  • Robyn Frith
  • Ian Nutley
  • Christopher Stockley
  • Patricia Zavisky
  • Burstows
  • Filmed in Toowoomba, Australia.
  • Lovingly hatched by Flickchicks